Last spring, Richard Mourdock said he had decided to run for a U.S. Senate seat in part because of a poll commissioned by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.
Lugar’s re-election campaign announced in late 2010 the results of a survey showing he was the most popular politician in Indiana, followed in order by then-Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh and Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Mourdock was miffed.
Not long before he soundly defeated Lugar in the Republican primary election, he said in an interview that the poll had been, kind of touting Evan Bayh over Mitch. And that really upset me, and believe me, it upset a lot of people.
But last week, both Lugar and Bayh came back to haunt Mourdock.
For the second time in recent months, Bayh traveled the state campaigning for Democratic Senate candidate Joe Donnelly. And election tallies made it clear that many past Lugar supporters were voting for either 2nd District Rep. Donnelly or Libertarian Andrew Horning.
In 2000, the last time Lugar was challenged in an election – and like this year, a presidential election year – he won nearly 1.44 million votes.
That is roughly 325,000 more than were cast Tuesday for Mourdock, who got 44.5 percent of the vote and lost to Donnelly by 129,600 votes.
Or consider this: More than 277,000 Hoosiers who voted for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney did not vote for Mourdock. The state treasurer received the fewest votes among five Republican candidates running statewide.
The failure of the Lugar and Mourdock camps to make peace cost Mourdock, IPFW political scientist Michael Wolf said last week. It is not uncommon to have divisive primaries. It’s hard to bring people back.
Lugar’s absence from the campaign was a story in itself. Not only wouldn’t he endorse Mourdock after their bitter primary fight – in which Mourdock referred to Lugar as President Obama’s favorite Republican – but Lugar’s staff publicly complained when an independent political action committee sent out a mailer to Hoosiers claiming Lugar supported Mourdock.
Making matters worse, it was the politically moderate Donnelly, not the hard-core conservative Mourdock, who talked throughout the race about admiring the 80-year-old Lugar, a senator since 1977.
So an argument can be made that Donnelly enjoyed a coattails effect from both Lugar and Bayh, a former governor who left the Senate in 2010 after two terms.
The senator-elect from Granger praised both men the morning after the election. Donnelly said Lugar’s shoes can’t be filled, and he called Bayh the role model we use, the blueprint for Indiana, which is Hoosier common sense.
When people saw Sen. Bayh, they said that’s the kind of job we want to see done in the Senate, Donnelly said.
But Bayh deflected talk of a coattails effect.
I think this was Joe Donnelly’s victory. I was happy to help, he said Tuesday night at a Democratic Party gathering at an Indianapolis hotel. I’ve found it’s hard to transfer popularity. I honestly think this is his victory, truly.
Mourdock ‘a verb’
IPFW’s Wolf said Bayh’s last-minute stumping for Donnelly was a demonstration for anybody who was still sitting on the fence.
Lugar loyalists did not need a demonstration. They made no secret of their dislike of Mourdock.
How on earth can you ask a man who is respected on both sides of the aisle for his statesmanship and ability to compromise when the situation requires, Anne Phelan of Indianapolis asked in an email, to actively endorse someone who criticizes bipartisanship?
As usual, Senator Lugar walked a fine line with aplomb, she said. If Mr. Mourdock had similar principles to those of Senator Lugar, Senator Lugar would have, indeed, endorsed him. Dick Lugar is not a small man.
Phelan is a member of a loose-knit group called Republicans for Donnelly.
I think people were mainly voting for Donnelly, she said, but also for the hope that the party would eventually swing back to what it once was – a home for liberal, moderate, conservative, and ultra-conservative Republicans. There is going to be a huge battle for the soul of the Republican Party over the next 4 years and our Senate race is one of the catalysts.
Former Lugar aide Mark Helmke, a Fort Wayne native and a communications instructor at Trine University, said in an email that many Republicans and independents voted for Mourdock in the primary because, they felt Lugar was too old and had been in the Senate too long.
But Helmke said those same people were shocked and upset after the primary when Mourdock’s campaign sent out a fundraising letter critical of Lugar.
According to media reports, the letter – which Donnelly referred to in his first debate with Mourdock and Horning – stated that Lugar routinely betrayed conservative voters to push through some of the most radical aspects of President Obama’s agenda.
Helmke and Phelan each said Mourdock’s expressed contempt for bipartisanship and his Oct. 23 debate remark that pregnancy resulting from rape is something that God intended to happen pushed more Republicans to Donnelly’s side.
I predict that Mourdock’s name will become a verb in political discourse and analysis, Helmke said.
By way of example, Helmke asked whether Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is mourdocking a possible Republican Senate majority with his support for tea party extremists?
And this: Mitt Romney mourdocked himself by turning off women, youth and Hispanic voters during the primary season, Helmke said.
As a verb it even sounds like a word for self-inflicted political wound, he said.
‘Lost on them’
Two nonpartisan analysts agreed that Republicans lost Lugar’s seat by nominating Mourdock.
Mourdock was a weak candidate, Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, said in an email. The debate question about abortion and rape is a prime example. It’s a question that was easily anticipated and an answer to it should have been prepared. There are any number of Republican officeholders who share Mourdock’s views on the subject but were prepared to answer questions without coming across as insensitive and unyielding.
Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said Lugar’s seat is among five in the Senate that Republicans essentially have given away in the last two elections, denying them majority status.
I think Republican strategists have to re-evaluate and reconsider their hands-off strategy when it comes to primaries, Gonzales said in an email. It won’t be easy and will likely be messy, but the party has to do a better job of getting more mainstream candidates in the most competitive races.
Duffy said, If Republicans aren’t rethinking the way they handle primaries, then the last two elections have been lost on them.
A spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee declined to comment for this story.
Bayh might have summarized the election as well as anybody when he was talking with reporters about Donnelly late Tuesday.
I think the people of Indiana understand that No. 1, he’s a decent man, Bayh said. No. 2, he’s a moderate on fiscal issues, and No. 3, there were some divisions in the Republican Party and some statements that Mr. Mourdock made that did not help him.