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Donnelly eyes Senate seat in upcoming election

John Cameron | Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Editor’s Note: This story is the first in a series featuring the race for the Indiana seat in the United States Senate.

U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly sees his potential new role as U.S. Senator as an opportunity to help bring the American dream to a greater number of Hoosiers.

“[This campaign] is about people, it’s about the challenges families face and trying to make everyone’s American dream come true – to help be a small part of that,” Donnelly said.

On Nov. 6, Donnelly will face off with Republican Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock to become Indiana’s next member of the U.S. Senate and the first Notre Dame graduate to ever sit in the upper house of Congress.

Donnelly said Indiana voters’ choice on Election Day will come down to a few fundamental issues.

“The choice in this election here in Indiana is crystal clear: it’s a question of who will fight for you and who will fight for middle class families,” he said. “My opponent, Richard Mourdock, has said that Medicare is unconstitutional, that Social Security is unconstitutional and that he doesn’t believe in bipartisanship.”

Donnelly said if Mourdock were to win the race, it would be a departure from a tradition of moderate leaders representing Indiana.

“He’s an extreme Tea Party candidate, and I’ve been – from the first day I started in Congress, an independent moderate,” he said. “Indiana has a long tradition of moderate, common sense U.S. senators like Richard Lugar and Evan Bayh, and that’s the tradition that I have served in the House and I intend to serve in the United States Senate.”

Having worked in the private sector and other public roles in Indiana before his 2006 election to the House of Representatives representing the district including South Bend, Donnelly said a continued focus on his Indiana roots best prepares him to represent the state in Washington.

“I think the most important thing is working back home in Indiana for 27 years in just a regular job, helping to run a printing business, practicing law and everyday raising my family back home,” he said.

Donnelly said the campaign for Senate has differed from his experience campaigning for and serving in the House of Representatives because of the broader constituency he’s gotten in touch with.

“It’s a chance to meet even more people from our state and see the incredible amount of diversity we have – in people, in geography – but at the end of the day, we’re so similar in that we want a job, to see our family have a wonderful life, and to see our country grow stronger,” he said. “In that way, all Hoosiers are the same.”

As the media continues to maintain a major role in elections, Donnelly said the coverage has been more of an asset than a challenge.

“I just look at it as a chance to talk to people from our state,” he said. “When I’m talking to [the media], I’m talking to the people of our state. So I look at them as a positive, a chance to continue the conversation, and a chance to hear what people think.”

A 1987 graduate of the University, and a 1991 graduate of the Notre Dame Law School, Donnelly said the University has played a crucial role in his personal development.

“Notre Dame has helped shape who I am as a person. I’ve known so many wonderful priests at Notre Dame, have been able to go to school with so many extraordinary people and have been taught by so many wonderful professors,” he said. “It’s helped shape who I am. I met my wife at Notre Dame. My children went to Notre Dame.”

Donnelly said he has been thankful for the level of political engagement by Notre Dame students and alumni.

“In the past I’ve had interns working in our congressional office almost every semester, a number of Notre Dame grads serve on my staff – both on the campaign staff and on the congressional staff. What we’ve seen is the talent level and ability of graduates from the University is off the charts,” he said. “I feel very lucky … we have a lot of Fighting Irish doing a lot of extraordinary work.”

Donnelly said Notre Dame students with political ambition should pursue those aspirations, but said those who don’t see themselves as leadership material should keep an ear open for the call to lead.

“I just practiced law here, worked at a small business, and hadn’t ever thought of running for congress. One day, I was blessed to have friends who talked to me about it, and it developed,” he said. “Don’t feel any pressure to have to do it one day or the next day … being a part of Notre Dame, you have the confidence, the ability and the talent to make anything come true.”

Donnelly’s last bit of leadership advice comes from University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh.

“I’ve always tried to keep Fr. Hesburgh in my heart. He always said whenever you have a decision to make, do the right thing,” Donnelly said. “That’s the Notre Dame way, and that’s what I try to do.”