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Mourdock’s debate comments complicate Indiana Senate race

Ann Marie Jakubowski | Friday, October 26, 2012

The Indiana senatorial race seemed like an easy win for the Republicans at the beginning of election season, but now Republican candidate Richard Mourdock, the Indiana state treasurer, and Democrat Joe Donnelly, Congressional representative for Indiana’s 2nd District, are in the middle of a dead heat in the race for the seat.

Mourdock beat Republican incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar in the May primary, when several staunch conservative groups backed him early. Lugar, a moderate Conservative, had wide support transcending partisan divides, Notre Dame professor and former political reporter Jack Colwell said.

“Lugar was known for reaching across the aisle and trying to reach a consensus with Democrats,” Colwell said. “Lugar probably would have been a shoo-in, but when Mourdock won the primary, that changed things in Indiana.”

Another curveball flew in the race earlier this week in the second senatorial debate, when Donnelly and Mourdock answered a question about abortion. Mourdock’s reply has stirred a national response.

“I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen,” Mourdock said during the Oct. 23 debate.

Mourdock later clarified he was not suggesting that God preordains rape, and said his comment was misinterpreted. It has proven influential in discussion of both the senatorial and presidential elections, however.

Days before the debate, the Mourdock campaign released an ad in which presidential candidate Mitt Romney endorses Mourdock. Romney has since publicly expressed his disagreement with Mourdock’s statement, but continues to endorse him.

Donnelly offered a press release in response to Mourdock’s comment.

“I am pro-life, but this controversy is not about pro-life. It is about Mr. Mourdock’s words and his continuation of extreme positions,” he stated in the release. “His words were extreme, but maybe as important, hurtful to survivors of sexual abuse. It is legitimate for Hoosiers to expect candidates running for the United States Senate to not take such positions.”

Other Indiana politicians have weighed in on the matter, including Indiana Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg, who released an official statement.

“I was shocked by Richard Mourdock’s comments regarding survivors of rape,” he stated in the release. “Rape is rape, and statements like these rub salt in the wounds of sexual assault survivors everywhere.”

Colwell said it is too early for polls to show how the comment has affected the senatorial race, but the widespread media coverage it received will surely make a difference.

“Not many people were watching the actual debate, but the coverage is now on the front page of every paper,” Colwell said. “It’s a big story everywhere, and we’ll find out soon enough it is big enough to tip the race for Donnelly.”

Indiana has traditionally been a conservative stronghold, though the nuances of the individual races may threaten that status today, Colwell said.

“When [President] Obama carried Indiana four years ago, that was the first time since 1964 that a Democrat carried Indiana,” Colwell said. “In the senate race, they split the ballot at times, so the Democrats have a chance.”

He said he thinks the selection of Mourdock over Lugar in the Republican primary may have been a dangerous move for the party, jeopardizing their stronghold.

“If Lugar were running, I think the race would be over, a Republican win,” Colwell said. “If Mourdock loses, the ultra-conservatives will have thrown away a certain Republican senate seat since they thought it didn’t matter which Republican candidate ran.”

Colwell said he thinks Mourdock’s chance for success in Indiana is challenged by his tendency to make incendiary remarks like this one.

“Mourdock was known for making some controversial comments. Among other things, he said there is too much bipartisanship in Washington, and also sought to block the Chrysler recovery effort as state treasurer,” Colwell said. “That enabled Donnelly to get closer in the polls.”

The gap between Donnelly and Mourdock may be coming even closer after this week. Colwell said Donnelly, a Notre Dame graduate, is challenging the traditionally conservative Indiana political climate with his bipartisan popularity.

“Donnelly is a moderate Democrat, so that fits in perfectly for him – he’s able to get in the middle with some of the Democrats who would have voted Lugar but are wary of Mourdock,” Colwell said.

Colwell said he expects Mourdock’s comment to affect Romney’s recent success in gaining female voters.

“Historically, women vote Democrat, and just as Romney is closing that gap nationally according to the polls, here comes this issue,” Colwell said. “Many think that what Mourdock said would be especially offensive to women, especially young, single women that have been a real target for both presidential campaigns.

“Now, instead of being able to answer questions about the economy, he’s fielding questions about Mourdock, and that’s the last thing they want in these closing days.”

Contact Ann Marie Jakubowski at [email protected]