Democrat Joe Donnelly insisted he was in the political middle throughout his U.S. Senate campaign in 2012. His opponents saw him differently.
"I don't think there is much moderation there," Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said during a September campaign stop in Fort Wayne.
The same month, the conservative Americans for Prosperity called Donnelly, then a six-year member of the House from Indiana's 2nd District, a "rubber stamp" for President Obama. And the conservative Club for Growth ran a TV ad that described Donnelly as a "typical Washington liberal."
On Nov. 7, a day after Hoosier voters selected him over Mourdock, Donnelly told reporters: "This isn't about Democrats or Republicans. I'm going (to the Senate) to represent Indiana and to represent the hopes and dreams of everyone."
So how has he done? Donnelly has a six-month voting record as a senator – only 164 roll-call votes on bills, amendments and resolutions by which to chart an ideological slant. But that scant evidence shows the St. Joseph County resident has frequently strayed from Senate majority Democrats and sided with minority Republicans.
"I think if you analyzed it, I would probably have split from the party more than almost any other member of the United States Senate," Donnelly said in a recent interview. "It is simply because I don't factor (party loyalty) into my voting decisions. What I factor into the voting decisions is how do we create jobs in Indiana, how do we make our state a better place, how do we make our country a stronger place."
Mourdock had predicted that Donnelly, if elected, would cancel votes on legislation cast by conservative Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind. But of the first 158 roll-call votes cast by both senators, Donnelly and Coats agreed 70 times, or 44.3 percent. And Donnelly was among only four Democrats to support a Coats amendment that would have delayed mercury emission standards for electric utilities (the measure failed to pass).
Many of their identical votes came on proposals approved by overwhelming or unanimous majorities of the Senate's 100 members, such as confirming Obama's Cabinet and judicial nominations, beefing up sanctions against Iran, fighting the spread of invasive Asian carp in U.S. waters and providing federal assistance to child victims of sex trafficking.
What about the closer, more partisan votes? On 71 proposals where the margin was fewer than 20 ballots, Donnelly and Coats voted alike 16 times, or 22.5 percent of the time. In most instances, Donnelly was among a small group of Democrats who split with their party on gun control, abortion rights and environmental regulations.
Those Democratic senators who joined Donnelly most often in bucking the party line were Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Max Baucus of Montana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
'That's his voting'
Donnelly said neither the Senate leadership nor the White House has pushed him to vote a certain way on any legislation.
"They have not pressured me to toe the line on any of these things because they know it wouldn't be of any use," Donnelly said. "I told them before I came here, 'Look, if you check my record in the House, I voted for what I thought was right for Indiana; I plan to do exactly the same in the United States Senate.' "
Senate leaders "knew what they were getting with Joe Donnelly," said Michael Wolf, a political scientist at IPFW. "He's a moderate ideologically. That's his history. That's his voting."
As a House member, Donnelly was a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats. Wolf referred to Donnelly as a 50-40 lawmaker, meaning he typically scored in the middle of the political spectrum in ratings by vote-tracking organizations.
For instance, the National Review, a conservative magazine and website, compares members of Congress according to liberal and conservative ratings that together total 100 points. In his six years in the House, Donnelly averaged 50 points on the liberal scale and 50 on the conservative scale.
In that same period, Rep. Mike Pence, R-6th – now Indiana's governor – averaged a bit above 90 on the conservative scale and a tad below 10 on the liberal scale. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-1st, scored roughly 73 liberal, 27 conservative.
Club for Growth wasn't as generous to Donnelly. It gave him a 14 percent lifetime rating on fiscal legislation, compared with 42 percent for Utah Democrat Jim Matheson.
"Joe Donnelly is the worst kind of liberal: he's too embarrassed to tell the voters what he truly believes. Unfortunately for him, his voting record tells the true story," Club for Growth communications director Barney Keller said in an email.
"There is almost no difference between a member of Congress who got a 14 percent on the Club's scorecard and a member who received a zero," Keller said. "Both try to rob from the taxpayers any chance they get, but the guy with the 14 percent maybe leaves the TV or car radio behind."
Club for Growth – headed by former Rep. Chris Chocola, whom Donnelly unseated in the 2006 election – is critical of Donnelly for voting for the health care law, the economic stimulus program and the farm bill.
Senate Democrats have little choice but to let their moderates be moderate, Wolf said, to allow them "to take a walk, even on some key issues."
Otherwise, he said, many of those senators – there are about a dozen moderate Democrats in all – might not have been elected in conservative states such as Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, and the party would not enjoy its 55-45 edge, which includes two independents who caucus with the Democrats.
The moderates showed their muscle during April votes on gun-control legislation. Their opposition to proposed bans on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips helped doom those bills.
Coats, who campaigned for Mourdock last fall, said he has not examined Donnelly's record.
"We've agreed on a number of things," Coats said last week in an interview. "In the end, he'll have to go home and explain his votes, and I'll have to go home and explain my votes. But I don't measure what I do against him."
Donnelly – who hasn't missed a roll-call vote this year – earlier said: "Dan and I have great respect for one another. We don't agree with each other, obviously, on everything."
They parted ways in recent weeks on immigration proposals, voting alike only three times in 17 roll-call votes. Donnelly favors a new system for immigrants to achieve citizenship, which was approved 68-32 on Thursday; Coats opposes the legislation because it does not delay immigration applications until the efficiency of border security improvements can be measured.
Coats, who is up for re-election in 2016, predicts the electorate will judge federal lawmakers closely on votes in two areas: implementing the federal health care law and reducing the national debt.
Donnelly voted for the Affordable Care Act when he was in the House, but he has objected to its 2.3 percent tax on medical device manufacturers and its mandate for large employers to provide medical insurance to employees who work at least 30 hours a week.
Regardless of how Donnelly votes, "the other party doesn't congratulate you all the time for your moderation," Wolf said. "They might at some level, but they're not afraid to run somebody against you. Ask Richard Lugar."
Seeking his seventh six-year term in the Senate last year, Republican Lugar faced opposition on two fronts: Donnelly, the Democrats' strongest candidate for the seat in a generation, and Mourdock, the GOP state treasurer and tea party favorite. Portraying Lugar as too moderate and compromising, Mourdock easily won the Republican primary election before losing six months later to Donnelly in the general election.
Another example: Moderate Republican Sen. Scott Brown was unseated by Democrat Elizabeth Warren in last year's Massachusetts election.
Wolf said several Senate races in 2014 will demonstrate whether voters are in a moderate mood. Democratic senators do not seek re-election in five states, and some of the moderates – Pryor, Hagan, Landrieu, Alaska's Mark Begich and Virginia's John Warner – are up for re-election.
"There are some great test cases coming up," Wolf said.
In the meantime, Donnelly said he and his centrist colleagues are "trying to keep things moderate and down the middle of the road."