This election season, Democrats have tried to frame Republicans as hostile to women.
After saying last week that women "rarely" get pregnant if they are victims of "legitimate rape," GOP Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin provided Democrats a chance to reignite their campaign theme and to make it local, including in several of Minnesota's congressional races.
While Democrats are linking Akin's views to 3rd Congressional District Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen and 2nd Congressional District Rep. John Kline to appeal to female swing voters, their rhetoric is also part of a broader attempt to recast some Republicans as too conservative for their districts.
Democrat Brian Barnes is running against Paulsen in the western Twin Cities suburbs, and he said that there's little difference between Paulsen and Akin's voting records.
"[The] comments of Rep. Erik Paulsen's colleague and close ally Todd Akin of Missouri have put the spotlight on their shared agenda, in this particular case redefining and delegitimizing rape and incest," Barnes said during a press conference last week. "As a husband, as a father, I am appalled — appalled at his votes against my wife, my daughter and against all women."
"[Paulsen] masquerades as a moderate," Barnes added. "He talks like Jim Ramstad and votes like Michele Bachmann and Todd Akin."
Barnes was referring to House Resolution 3, a 2011 U.S. House bill that would have permanently banned the use of taxpayer dollars for abortions. Initially, it included language that provided an exemption for "forcible rape," but that language was stripped over concerns that it would redefine the act.
Paulsen spokesman John Paul Yates said that Paulsen opposes Akin's comments, which Akin later apologized for.
In 2010, Paulsen co-sponsored a bill that included the contentious "forcible rape" language. In 2011, he voted with his party for the stripped down version of House Resolution 3, although he was not among its co-sponsors.
Akin and Minnesota's Kline did sponsor the resolution, and Democrat Mike Obermueller is using it as fodder in his bid to defeat Kline in the south suburban metro area. He says it's disconcerting that Kline and Akin would co-sponsor a bill that would imply there are different kinds of rape.
"To me there is no distinction," said Obermuller who says he's "no fan" of abortion, but that the government shouldn't be involved in a woman's decision to have one.
"Rape is a heinous, disgusting crime... and the bill they've co-sponsored gives the impression that some rapes are not as bad as others, and to me that's really offensive."
Kline hasn't weighed-in on Akin's comments, and he declined to comment for this report.
Jess McIntosh, spokeswoman for EMILY's List, an organization that supports female candidates who favor giving women the option of having an abortion, says Akin's comments fit with a larger theme she sees among Republicans.
"It is the latest in a very long line of attacks against women's rights," McIntosh said. "[Republicans] campaigned on jobs and the economy, and as soon as they got in, they started pursuing this really divisive social agenda that was incredibly anti-woman."
That's a broader campaign theme that Democrats are once again seeking to exploit with Akin's comments, said University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Pearson.
Akin's words not only fit neatly into what Democrats have dubbed the Republican "war on women," they highlight the party's platform, which has long included a constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion, said Pearson, who also sits on the board of WomenWinning, a Minnesota group with a similar mission to EMILY's List.
"So, even though the Republican policies are not new, Akin's comments have given Democrats an opportunity to raise this issue in an election where, otherwise, we'd be talking about the economy, Medicare, Romney's taxes and other issues," she said.
Because many voters say abortion should be legal under at least some circumstances, Akin's comments also give Democrats an opportunity to paint Republicans as out of sync with the average voter, particularly in competitive districts, Pearson added.
It's an approach that's playing out in Minnesota's competitive 8th Congressional District.
There, people organized by CREDO PAC, a liberal group aimed at defeating conservative members of Congress, are underscoring Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack's votes on issues that the groups says threaten women's wellbeing in general, said Monique Teal, who is directing CREDO's efforts in the 8th.
But don't expect to hear Akin's name or abortion to come up too much among Democrats in the 8th District even though Cravaack's DFL opponent Rick Nolan is the first candidate who supports legal abortion that the party has had in years, said Aaron Brown, author of MinnesotaBrown.com, a blog that follows politics in the region.
"Democrats in the 8th District and on the Range, they don't talk about abortion politics at all if they can help it," Brown said, who has also been active in DFL politics. "Choice is not a winning issue per se, because it turns off some of those socially conservative Democrats who are still voting for the Democratic party."
Neither Nolan or Cravaack returned calls for comment.
Democrats may have to do a tricky calculus on the abortion issue throughout the campaign.
"It really just depends on the nature of the district," Pearson said. "Depending on whether it's rural, urban, suburban, demographics really do matter when it comes to this issue, not just partisan politics. And so, for some Democrats, whether they are incumbents or challengers, they may be better off sticking to the economy."