At a restaurant just outside Indianapolis on October 11, Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock stood beside an enormous DirecTV poster of NFL players from several teams as they walked up a football stadium’s entrance tunnel and toward its playing field. The names on their backs read like a roster of all-pros: Newton, Rodgers, Suh. Among them strode Peyton Manning, wearing the bright orange jersey of the Denver Broncos. One of the game’s premier quarterbacks and most popular figures, he spent 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts before heading to Denver in March.
“Last weekend I went through the Denver airport,” said Mourdock, gesturing to the advertisement. “I came off the jetway, and the first thing I saw was a big wall sign of number 18 in an orange jersey.” The crowd groaned, reminded of their hometown hero’s departure. Mourdock continued: “It said, ‘Colts grow up to be Broncos.’” Louder groans. “I wanted to head back up the jetway,” he chuckled, this time drawing anxious laughter.
Five months earlier, Mourdock did his own growing up, rising from tea-party colt to GOP bronco, as he captured more than 60 percent of the vote in a bitter primary against longtime Indiana senator Dick Lugar. The rout marked perhaps the most audacious victory for tea-party activists since they became a force in Republican circles. The win was big, and so was the target: Lugar wasn’t merely an incumbent taken by surprise at a GOP convention (as was Robert Bennett, the Utah senator who lost in 2010) or a moderate preferred by his party’s establishment but unproven in federal office and distrusted by conservatives (as were Senate seekers Charlie Crist of Florida in 2010 and David Dewhurst of Texas this year). Instead, Lugar was a seemingly entrenched elder statesman, widely respected for his foreign-policy expertise and a legend in Hoosier politics. Yet his occasional lurches toward liberalism left him vulnerable to a grassroots insurgency — and Mourdock, now serving his second term as Indiana’s treasurer, seized his underdog opening and shocked the punditocracy.
As November 6 approaches, Mourdock finds himself locked in a close general-election contest that almost everybody agrees Lugar would have won without breaking a sweat. In September, a Howey/DePauw poll of Indiana’s likely voters showed Mitt Romney leading President Obama by twelve points. GOP gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence enjoyed a 13-point cushion over his opponent. Mourdock, however, was two points behind his foe, Democratic congressman Joe Donnelly. Technically, the result was within the poll’s margin of error, with Donnelly at 40 percent, Mourdock at 38 percent, and plenty of voters still undecided. Yet the problem was obvious: Mourdock was running far behind fellow Republicans in a GOP-friendly state.
If Republicans hope to gain control of the Senate, they almost certainly need to defend the seat they currently hold in Indiana — and that means Mourdock must prevail. The stakes are also high for the future of tea-party insurrections. A victory in Indiana would show that Republican rebels can select credible candidates, push the GOP to the right in primaries, and still come out on top in November. A defeat, however, would have Mourdock join the ignominious ranks of Nevada’s Sharron Angle, Colorado’s Ken Buck, and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell — a trio of tea-party favorites who beat stronger general-election contenders in primaries and went on to forfeit good opportunities for Republicans to pick up Senate seats two years ago. In other words, Mourdock’s loss would provide a compelling case study in conservative self-destruction, influencing not only the makeup of the Senate next year but also the primaries in 2014 and beyond.
Mourdock believes the closeness of his race should surprise no one. “We’ve had $6 million spent against us so far,” he says, referring to a stream of negative ads funded by Donnelly and Democratic groups since the primary. “In Indiana, that kind of money will leave a mark.” By Election Day, his campaign estimates, Mourdock will have endured an assault of more than $10 million, much of it aimed at portraying him as a right-wing extremist. “You think he’d glow like Chernobyl,” says Jason Miller, a media consultant who works for Mourdock. One of the most popular lines of attack involves the video clip of a statement that Mourdock likes to use as a joke: “To me the highlight of politics frankly is to inflict my opinion on someone else.” Set to sinister music and skeptical voiceovers, it seems anything but funny. Yet Mourdock let the summer slip by without much of a response. Drained of resources after ousting Lugar, he waited until September to hit the airwaves with his own commercials.
The 61-year-old Mourdock is in fact a veteran candidate. Two decades ago, he lost a couple of races for Congress. Then he served as a county commissioner and began his political ascent. In 2006, he won statewide election as Indiana’s treasurer, and he was reelected in 2010 with more than 1 million votes. His unsuccessful lawsuit against the Obama administration for its bailout of Chrysler caught the eye of conservatives. They saw a spunky officeholder who was willing to risk political capital for free-market principles. When thoughts turned to a candidate who could take on Lugar, Mourdock was a natural choice.
Mourdock is pro-life, pro-gun, and against much of the Obama agenda, from its stimulus spending to its health-care takeover. When liberals accuse him of hostility to bipartisan compromise, Mourdock smiles: “Democrats say, ‘Let’s spend $100 billion we don’t have.’ Republicans say, ‘Let’s spend $50 billion we don’t have.’ So they compromise at $75 billion we don’t have. That’s great bipartisanship but bad policy.” Although attack ads have portrayed him as a stubborn ideologue, it’s hard to picture Mourdock with a mean streak. The man is an easy cry. His dark eyes moisten when he talks about his parents or describes immigrant success stories. Behind the easily choked-up exterior, however, lies a considerable determination. “No one works harder,” says Jeff Heinzmann, a rival in Mourdock’s first quest to win the GOP nomination for state treasurer.
His adversary, the 57-year-old Congressman Donnelly, belongs to Indiana’s occasional tradition of electing blue-dog Democrats — moderates such as former governor and senator Evan Bayh. On the campaign trail, Donnelly likes to quote Ronald Reagan: “The best social program is a job.” He has voted for tax cuts and against the DREAM Act, which would allow certain illegal aliens to gain legal residency. He irritated liberals with his opposition to a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan. He’s so strong on Second Amendment rights that the National Rifle Association has decided to sit out the race, refusing to endorse either candidate. Even pro-lifers usually can rely on Donnelly as an ally: A Catholic who graduated from Notre Dame, he has voted to cut federal subsidies for Planned Parenthood, end taxpayer-funded abortions, and ban abortion for sex selection. In 2008, the National Right to Life Committee encouraged its supporters to get behind Donnelly’s reelection. “Joe is pro-life and has voted that way,” says Elizabeth Shappell, his communications director.
Yet the Obama years have been hard on him. Following the 2010 census and redistricting, Donnelly’s congressional seat became more Republican, a development that probably spurred his decision to try for the Senate. At the same time, his voting record drifted leftward, as he backed most of the White House’s big-ticket items, from the stimulus spending to the Dodd-Frank financial regulations to Obamacare. This last item may have delivered the biggest blow, angering both conservatives and independents as well as alienating pro-lifers desperate for Democratic allies. Today, both National Right to Life and Indiana Right to Life back Mourdock. “When we needed Donnelly the most, during the Obamacare debate, he wasn’t there,” says Mike Fichter of Indiana Right to Life. “We consider it a great betrayal.”
As the election approaches, Donnelly is trying to sidestep a bundle of controversial issues. He won’t say whether he supports his alma mater’s lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services for its birth-control mandate — and he accuses Mourdock of trying to “pick a partisan fight” over the matter, as if this were a dispute brought on by conservatives. On October 12, shortly before attending a Democratic rally headlined by Bill Clinton, Donnelly praised the former president’s efforts to pass welfare reform. Yet he refused to say what he thought about the Obama administration’s recent revisions to it: “I supported Clinton’s welfare reform,” he said. “I’ll be looking deeper into the other one.” In an effort to appear open-minded, he has suggested that he might not vote for Democrat Harry Reid as Senate majority leader — but ever since, he has avoided a straight answer to direct questions about whom he would vote for. “I don’t know who the candidates will be,” he said, implausibly.
Obama carried Indiana in 2008, making him the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964. In 2012, Donnelly can’t count on any coattails — Obama appears poised to lose the state badly, and isn’t even putting up a fight. “Two years ago, Democrats organized this state like it was Chicago,” says Brose McVey, Mourdock’s deputy campaign manager. “This year, we can’t find any evidence of a ground game.”
So Donnelly has to bank on disaffected Lugar Republicans. “That’s the question: Will they vote for Donnelly out of spite?” asks Gregg Puls of the Fishers GOP Club. Now that Lugar is safely headed for retirement, Democrats are acting as if they loved him all along. At the October 12 rally, Clinton commented on what a swell senator Lugar has been, and a gymnasium full of people who probably never voted for him erupted in applause. Lugar, for his part, endorsed Mourdock but has not campaigned for him and won’t even give interviews on the race. Republican governor Mitch Daniels, admired by many conservatives, has been strangely absent as well. In June, when he agreed to become the next president of Purdue University, he announced that he would not comment on politics during the final six months of his governorship. So the man who may be Indiana’s most popular Republican isn’t helping Mourdock in a race whose result could have large national repercussions. Finally, there’s a third-party wild card: Libertarian candidate Andrew Horning was attracting about 4 percent of likely voters, according to McLaughlin & Associates on October 8. In a tight race, Horning could play the role of spoiler — and Mourdock’s campaign team believes that his presence on the ballot is an advantage for Donnelly.
The good news for Mourdock is that the same poll also gave him a slim lead over Donnelly, 45 percent to 42 percent. A week later, a Rasmussen survey of likely voters showed a wider gap, with 47 percent for Mourdock and 42 percent for Donnelly. So the conservative Republican may be in the midst of a fourth-quarter comeback — almost like Peyton Manning, the NFL’s all-time leader in that category.