JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, who touted himself as the most conservative congressman in Missouri, won a hard-fought Republican primary Tuesday for the right to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill in a contest that could be pivotal for party control of the chamber.
Akin topped suburban St. Louis businessman John Brunner and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman in a primary in which all three leading candidates tried to appeal to conservative voters and tea party activists. McCaskill, who bills herself as a political moderate, was unopposed in the Democratic primary.
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Their matchup in the general election will be one of several pivotal races nationwide as Republicans seek seek the four additional seats necessary to take control of the Senate away from Democrats. Conservative interest groups already have spent millions of dollars on ads attacking McCaskill, prompting an advertising rebuttal from groups aligned with her.
Akin, 65, is a former Army officer, engineer and state lawmaker who first won election to the U.S. House in 2000 after narrowly prevailing in a five-person Republican primary. In an election season in which other challengers portrayed themselves as Washington outsiders, Akin campaigned by highlighting a congressional record that he said proved his conservative gumption.
Akin noted, for example, that one of his first votes in office was to oppose the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal education law signed by Republican President George W. Bush. Akin has continued to call for the elimination of the federal education department. He also notes that he was firmly against the 2008 bank bailout. And Akin warns that the federal government suffers from "Stage Three cancer of socialism."
Brunner and Steelman both criticized Akin for supporting spending earmarks, which are frowned up by many in the tea party movement. But Akin sought to turn that in his favor, highlighting how some of that spending helped equip U.S. military Humvees with armor in the Middle East. Akin's own ads never turned negative, instead featuring the praise of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who was a 2008 presidential candidate.
McCaskill may also have aided Akin with a TV ad in which she highlighted his conservative viewpoints before concluding that Akin is too conservative.
A poll taken in late July showed McCaskill trailing Akin by a smaller percentage margin than in hypothetical head-to-head matchups against the other leading Republican candidates.
McCaskill, 59, is seeking a second six-year term in the Senate to cap a lengthy political resume that includes time spent as state auditor, a state lawmaker and a county prosecutor in the Kansas City area. For better or worse, McCaskill is linked to President Barack Obama. She was one of his earliest supporters during his 2008 campaign and backed Obama on two of his most high-profile laws -- the 2010 health care overhaul and the 2009 stimulus act.
Akin and the other Republican candidates all vowed to try to repeal the health care law. They all contended that the best way to improve the economy was by limiting government debt, taxes, spending and regulations.