ST. LOUIS – Until this week, Rep. Todd Akin was virtually unknown beyond his suburban district, associated more with his deep religious convictions than any legislative achievements.
Long before his comments about women's bodies and "legitimate rape" made him a potential flashpoint in the fall campaign, Akin was a favorite among home-schooling organizations and conservative church groups in the area where his relatives have lived for generations. He seldom authored bills or sought wider recognition.
Now Akin could help shape the national political debate in a Senate race that leaders of his own party figure he can't win, and they're worried he'll drag down other Republicans with him. But if Akin's 12 years in Congress have proven anything, it's that pressure from the party establishment carries little weight with him.
"He's never been popular among Republicans, and Todd Akin doesn't care," Saint Louis University political science professor Ken Warren said. "The best you can say for Todd is that he's a very principled guy. He believes what he believes, and he's not going to compromise those principles just to be in the mainstream."
The 65-year-old, six-term congressman ascended in Missouri politics largely on his own. He grew up on a farm outside St. Louis, earned an engineering degree and went to work at now-bankrupt Laclede Steel Co., which his great-grandfather started. He and his wife, Lulli, settled on land in St. Louis County owned by Akin's father. Each Independence Day he would dress in colonial attire as the family hosted a party for the neighborhood.
The Akins home-schooled their four sons (three of whom graduated from the Naval Academy and became Marine Corps officers) and two daughters. Lulli Akin's involvement in home-schooling groups helped create the base of support that has long sustained her husband's political career.
Akin, a member of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, earned a master's of divinity degree from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis in 1984. He never became a pastor but four years later won a seat in the Missouri House, where he established a track record as a staunch abortion opponent and supporter of gun rights.
Faith is never far from his mind. In a fundraising email sent to supporters Wednesday, Akin said he was accountable only to God and the voters, not "party bosses."
His anti-establishment streak started with his first run for Congress. In 2000, party elders favored Gene McNary, a former St. Louis County executive who served in the George H.W. Bush administration and ran previously for governor and senator.
Despite being an underdog, Akin defeated McNary by 56 votes on a day when drenching rain kept turnout at 17 percent.
Akin's disregard for the advice of party elites can be seen throughout his congressional tenure.
While debating Bush's Medicare prescription drug benefit in 2003, House leaders assiduously courted rank-and-file members to vote for the legislation. Akin refused, saying the program would blow up the federal budget and attract more illegal immigrants.
He also voted against Bush's No Child Left Behind education package. And in 2008, Akin waited months after Sen. John McCain had secured the Republican presidential nomination before endorsing him, citing concerns about McCain's views on embryonic-stem-cell research among other issues.
In Congress, Akin has been something of a backbencher. He authored the Protect the Pledge Act in 2006 that sought to ensure the phrase "under God" was maintained when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The bill did not pass in the Senate.
But he is well known in Washington for his spirited pursuit of legislation on social issues, even in cases where it stands no chance of becoming law. Akin has sponsored or co-sponsored a raft of legislation affecting abortion, including a proposal that would ban all federal funding for abortions. He has also sought to require parental consent for minors who want birth control.
His efforts have won him the support of conservative groups such as the Family Research Council, which was one of few organizations to stand by him after the rape remarks.
Akin was always something of an outsider in the House Republican caucus. He has relatively few friends in the caucus and tends to eschew House social gatherings. Inside the Capitol, Akin is considered amiable, if removed. He is generally friendly and cordial with individual members, including Democrats.
An Army veteran with a son who served as a Marine in Iraq, Akin serves on the Armed Services Committee and is chairman of the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces. He lobbied for an appointment to the House budget committee and was appointed after Republicans retook the majority. He also serves on the Science and Technology Committee.
Akin, one of the first members of Congress to join the tea party caucus, has generated backlash before.
In June 2011, a group of St. Louis-area religious leaders condemned his comments that liberalism "really is a hatred for God." He drew fire again in recent weeks for comparing federal student loans to "a stage three cancer."
Some considered Akin an underdog again in a three-way primary race for the Senate, but he dominated in the most conservative areas of Missouri and handily defeated millionaire businessman John Brunner and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman. Polls showed he had a good chance of unseating incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill in November — a race crucial to Republican efforts to retake the Senate.
Everything changed Sunday. In an interview with St. Louis TV station KTVI, Akin said he understood that conception from rape was rare.
"If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," Akin said. He has since apologized many times over.
But fellow Republicans, including presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney, have turned on Akin, calling for him to get out of the race. In addition to concern that he has forfeited any chance of winning in Missouri, there was growing worry that the fallout could hurt other congressional candidates and even Romney.
Republicans trying to force him out face a formidable challenge.
Akin has proclaimed that his success comes from not paying attention to politics. His campaign isn't run by a political operative but by his eldest son, Perry.
His unwavering opposition to abortion, support for prayer in school and gun rights and disdain for big government have attracted a solid base of support in an increasingly conservative state.
"One thing that has drawn me to Todd is his faith," said Don Hinkle, director of public policy for the Missouri Baptist Convention.
State Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, a St. Louis County Republican, said "of all the people in Washington, D.C., if I had to rate one person that I would trust holding my wallet or keeping my grandchildren over the weekend, Todd Akin would be at the top of the list."
Another Republican state representative, Bill White of Joplin, described Akin as different from many elected officials who change their stance on issues based on the whims of voters or pressure from political elites.
"Money, power, position," White said. "My assessment is those things are not going to register with him."
Jackson reported from Washington. Associated Press Writer Chris Blank in Jefferson City, Mo., contributed to this report.