Missouri Republican Senate candidates John Brunner, Todd Akin and Sarah Steelman at a forum event in February. The winner of the primary will challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. Orlin Wagner/AP
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Rep. Todd Akin, a six-term lawmaker and evangelical Christian with the support of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, won a hotly contested Republican U.S. Senate primary in Missouri, meaning he will face incumbent Claire McCaskill, a Democrat the GOP considers beatable.

Unlike his two main opponents, Akin was spared from millions of dollars worth of attack ads paid for by outside groups. Super PACs and politically active nonprofits targeted former state treasurer Sarah Steelman, who was endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and millionaire businessman John Brunner.

With all precincts reporting, Akin won 36 percent of the vote, Brunner finished second with 30 percent and Steelman was a close third at 29.2 percent, according to the Missouri Secretary of State’s offfice. Steelman called Akin to concede a little after 10 p.m., according to news reports.

Brunner, a self-funder who enjoyed favorable advertising paid for by the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was the target of more than $1.1 million in attack ads paid for by Majority PAC, the main super PAC focused on helping Democrats retain control of the Senate.

Similarly, McCaskill’s own campaign ran ads against all three Republican candidates. Notably, her advertisements targeting Akin called him “Missouri’s true conservative,” which may have helped the underfunded congressman. The move prompted political observers to note that Akin may be McCaskill’s preferred November rival.

In late July, it looked like Steelman was gaining steam against her rivals. That’s when Palin, the Republican’s 2008 vice presidential nominee, endorsed her. And that’s also when a super PAC sprang into action on her behalf.

During the final two weeks of the race, a pro-Steelman super PAC called Now or Never PAC spent about $700,000 on ads in the race, mostly attacking Brunner.

Now or Never’s top donors include Stanley Herzog, who runs a highway and railroad construction company, who gave $250,000; retired financial executive and income tax opponent Rex Sinquefield, who gave $100,000; and Maxine Steelman, the candidate’s mother-in-law, who gave $50,000.

Steelman was boosted by the political action committee of the Tea Party Express, which invested about $76,000 on television and radio ads backing her candidacy. But she was fervently criticized in ads sponsored by the Chamber, which spent nearly $700,000 on a last-minute spot that argued Steelman and McCaskill were “two peas in a pod.”

Overall, outside groups spent more than $2.2 million during the GOP primary advocating for or against one of the Republican candidates. Nearly 90 percent of the total went to negative advertising, as the Center for Public Integrity previously reported.

The Missouri GOP Senate primary marks the second time in a week where a self-funded candidate went down to defeat. On July 31, former Texas solicitor general Ted Cruz bested Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a Senate primary runoff.Brunner, who was long considered the frontrunner in Missouri, likewise spent millions of his personal wealth.

The former CEO of his family’s health products company, Brunner is worth between $25.5 million and $103 million, according to the St. Louis-Post Dispatch.

He contributed nearly $7.6 million of his own money to his campaign, more than 90 percent of the $8.3 million that his campaign raised, all to no avail. Meanwhile, Akin raised about $2.3 million, and Steelman raised about $1.9 million, with $800,000 of it coming from her own pocket.

For her part, McCaskill had about $3.5 million in the bank as of her most recent campaign finance filing in mid-July.

The Missouri Senate race also marks the second recent occasion in which a contentious three-way race saw a surprise victor on Election Day. In May, Republican Deb Fischer won the Nebraska GOP Senate primary after her two main rivals and their allies spent millions attacking each other.

Update (Aug. 8, 1:45 p.m.): This story was updated to include the final vote percentages.

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Michael Beckel reported for the Center for Public Integrity from 2012 to 2017.

John Dunbar worked for 15 years at the Center for Public Integrity, serving as its CEO from 2016 to 2018.