WASHINGTON - First it was Todd Akin. Then Steve King. Then Joe Walsh. Then Richard Mourdock. One after another, Republican congressional nominees opened their mouths, inserted their feet and embarrassed their party.
Akin, a congressman running for U.S. Senate in Missouri, said rape survivors don't need abortions because "if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." King, an Iowa congressman up for re-election, deflected a question about abortions for 12-year-old rape victims by saying, "I just haven't heard of that being a circumstance that's been brought to me in any personal way." Walsh, a House incumbent in Illinois, asserted that "with modern technology and science, you can't find one instance" where abortion is necessary to protect a woman's life or health. "There is no such exception as life of the mother," Walsh concluded. "And as far as health of the mother, same thing." Mourdock, the Indiana state treasurer and Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, opined that "even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." For Mitt Romney, these episodes have been a two-month headache. First, he had to override Paul Ryan's opposition to abortions for rape victims. Then he had to apologize for Akin's comment. Then he had to apologize for Mourdock's. And the apology tour might be just getting started, because Akin and Mourdock are hardly alone. Their view - that abortion should be prohibited even in cases of sexual assault - isn't just the party's official position. It's the most commonly held position among new Republican nominees for the U.S. Senate.
Thirty-three Senate seats are at stake in this election. Five of them are held by Republican incumbents whose nominations were never seriously contested. In the remaining 28 states, three nominations (Connecticut, Hawaii and Rhode Island) were won by pro-choice candidates. Maine Republicans nominated a guy who said he's "pro-choice specifically for three reasons: rape, incest, life of the mother." New Jersey Republicans picked a state senator who advocated "pro-life initiatives" and "reasonable restraints" but said abortion should be legal early in pregnancy and for rape victims. Eight nominations (Arizona, California, Florida, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, and Wisconsin) went to candidates who said abortion should be outlawed except in cases of rape or incest. Three (Delaware, Maryland and Minnesota) went to pro-lifers who haven't clarified their stance on exceptions. The rest - 12 nominations - went to candidates who would ban abortion even for survivors of sexual assault. That's a plurality of the party's primaries.
Akin and Mourdock are the best-known cases. But Ted Cruz, the solicitor general of Texas, also opposes a rape exception. So does Pennsylvania nominee Tom Smith. So does West Virginia nominee John Raese: "I will proudly stand against the destruction of innocent human life unless the life of the mother is in jeopardy." In Vermont, the state right-to-life committee certified Republican nominee John MacGovern as "fully pro-life."
When MacGovern was asked whether "a woman should be forced by the government to give birth to a rapist's baby," he answered: "I've always in my career and to this day been loyal to the principle of life. I'm pro-life. I'm profoundly pro-life. I'm pro-life to my core."
In Nebraska, state Rep. Deb Fischer was pressed for her position on the Republican platform's call for "a constitutional amendment banning all abortions with no exception for rape or incest." She responded: "I am pro-life, and I believe in the sanctity of life. I do believe that there should be an exception made for the life of the mother."
In Ohio, state treasurer Josh Mandel rejected a rape exception and declared, "I'll do everything I can to protect innocent life."
In Michigan, Rep. Pete Hoekstra was asked whether a woman should have to bear her rapist's child. Hoekstra, who was already on record against a rape exception, replied: "I believe life is a gift."
In New York, Wendy Long, a member of Romney's Justice Advisory Committee, boasted during her primary that she was "100 percent pro-life," whereas her opponents would grant "exceptions" to an abortion ban.
In Washington, state Sen. Michael Baumgartner admitted that "rape is a tragedy" but concluded: "I still believe life begins at conception. That is consistent with my Catholic beliefs. And I believe we must protect life."
In North Dakota, a reporter asked Rep. Rick Berg: "You would not make an exception for rape?" Berg replied: "No." Three of the party's candidates seem not to have addressed the rape question. Kevin Wade, the nominee in Delaware, has repeatedly said he opposes "taking human life." Dan Bongino, the nominee in Maryland, opposes federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research and believes "life begins at conception and should be protected." Kurt Bills, the nominee in Minnesota, reportedly sidestepped a rape question but opposes embryonic stem-cell research and boasts that he's been a "co-author on every ... bill" backed by Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life.
Judging by polls, most Republican voters don't share this view. And I haven't tried to nail down where the party's hundreds of House nominees stand. But the Senate numbers are striking. Of the 28 nonincumbent nominees, 12 to 15 share the view of Akin, Mourdock and the party platform. They believe a rape victim should be forbidden to terminate her pregnancy. This is no longer a fringe position.
It isn't a couple of gaffes by renegade crackpots. It's the predominant view among Republican nominees for the nation's highest legislative body. It's what the Republican Party is.
Saletan (@saletan) covers science, technology and politics for Slate.