WASHINGTON — Can a political gaffe in America’s heartland change the dynamics of a Senate race roughly 1,500 miles away in Maine?

Could be.

The now infamous comment by U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., about “legitimate rape” dealt a serious blow to his campaign to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill. As a result, the outcome in Maine is even more critical to the Republican Party’s effort to win control of the Senate.

Charlie Summers, the Republican candidate in the Maine race, denounced Akin’s comments, yet he may benefit indirectly from the political chain reaction that has increased the attention on Maine.

All politics may be local, as the late House speaker and Massachusetts Democrat Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill famously quipped. But in today’s elections, political money is increasingly national and flows into campaigns by either trickle or torrent depending on how important the races are to the national parties’ agendas.

And by that standard, Summers’ U.S. Senate bid against independent Angus King and Democrat Cynthia Dill appears to have grown in stature ever since Akin’s remarks cost him the support of Republican leaders and, therefore, major donor groups.

In the three weeks since the firestorm began over Akin’s comments, out-of-state organizations with Republican ties have spent roughly $850,000 on television ads that would benefit Summers. Most notably, the National Republican Senatorial Committee bought $600,000 worth of ads and airtime in Maine targeting King and Dill last week.

“I think Maine’s importance, given the broader picture, has been elevated,” said Anthony Corrado, a Colby College professor of politics and scholar of campaign finance on the national stage. “They are not going to allocate money to places where they don’t see a tight race.”

To be fair, Maine’s Senate campaign is never mentioned among the handful of races around the country considered too close to call. So not surprisingly, King, Summers and Dill have attracted a fraction of the “outside money” that is flowing to candidates in tight races in such states as Virginia, Ohio and Nevada.

But ever since Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe abruptly announced her retirement last March, there has been no question that who wins Snowe’s seat could tip the balance of power in the Senate.

Conventional wisdom among many political observers has been that King – a former governor still popular with voters – is the odds-on favorite, with polls earlier this summer showing him far ahead of his two major-party contenders. But the Summers campaign has been increasingly insistent that King’s lead began shrinking ever since the U.S. Chamber of Commerce began airing ads attacking the former governor’s record.

And with McCaskill now in a stronger position to defend her seat against Akin in Missouri, GOP groups hoping to wrestle control of the Senate from the Democrats may be looking anew at other races where infusions of campaign cash could boost Republican contenders.

The Republican senatorial committee reportedly canceled plans to spend up to $5 million on the Akin-McCaskill race and is now moving that money elsewhere.

“We’re done,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the NRSC chairman, told Politico last week when asked whether the organization may still help Akin financially. As a result, Politico reported, NRSC “has shifted its focus to states like Maine.”

“As Republican chances of retaking the Senate have been squeezed around the country, Maine has become more important to the party,” said Amy Fried, a politics professor at the University of Maine. Fried predicted that groups will wait to gauge the return on their investment based on polling before deciding whether to stay engaged in the state.

“But Maine is an inexpensive media market,” Fried said. “So if a half-million dollars comes in, you can do a lot with that in Maine versus, say, in Ohio or Virginia or Massachusetts.”

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at Cook Political Report, an influential Washington, D.C., publication that analyzes elections across the country, said campaign resources get shifted around all of the time. And Duffy suspects that much of the Missouri money will go to races in more expensive states such as Virginia and Ohio.

But Duffy said there’s a feeling among Republicans that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s early ads “moved the numbers” in Summers’ favor.

So the Republican senatorial committee, a super PAC called Maine Freedom and other groups will likely try to move them a little more “because if they do, this is a competitive race.” And Maine is a comparatively cheap state when it comes to buying airtime.

“If it does get competitive, it puts (national) Democrats in a rather awkward position because they have already said – not so much in words but in actions – that they are not going to do anything for Cynthia Dill,” Duffy said. While the Maine Democratic Party supports Dill’s candidacy, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has yet to offer her any financial help.

The Washington-based PAC Maine Freedom has already caused some discomfort with nearly $250,000 in ads that, on the surface, seem to support Dill by calling her “a Democrat you can believe in.” But Maine Freedom is run by individuals with Republican ties, prompting observers to believe they are attempting to help Summers by dividing the Democratic/progressive vote between King and Dill. Both Dill’s and King’s campaigns have denounced the ads.

Wendy Schiller, an associate professor of political science and public policy at Brown University in Providence, R.I., said that “all is fair” when it comes to political warfare.

Schiller pointed out that McCaskill spent money on ads subtly supporting Akin in the primary because she believed she would have a better shot against the conservative candidate in the general election.

As for Maine’s Senate race, Schiller said she wasn’t surprised to hear about a recent surge in Republican spending. After all, a strong showing for Summers at the polls could help GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who Maine Republicans believe could pick up at least one electoral vote by winning the state’s 2nd Congressional District.

“In a race this close, I think one (electoral vote) can really make a difference,” Schiller said.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.