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Democrats Still Have Tough Road in Indiana

James Brosher/South Bend Tribune/Associated Press
Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly (above) still has an uphill battle in the Indiana Senate race against state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who knocked off longtime Republican Sen. Dick Lugar.

A few weeks ago, Rep. Joe Donnelly sat in the “Michigan City jail” — or at least that’s how he described the windowless call room on the first floor of Democratic National Committee headquarters.

It was a form of purgatory for Donnelly, who dialed for dollars while he waited out the bitter Indiana GOP primary between state Treasurer Richard Mourdock and longtime Sen. Dick Lugar.

Since Mourdock’s resounding victory Tuesday, Donnelly and his fellow Democrats have been bullish about their prospects for putting the Indiana Senate seat in play. But Republicans balk at the idea, pointing out that no Democrat not named Bayh has won a Senate seat in Indiana since 1970.

So just how realistic are Democrats’ chances of winning the Indiana seat? There’s a winding, narrow path to victory for Donnelly, but just about everything would have to break his way — including, to a degree, the presidential race.

“I think Joe is doing everything Joe needs to do, but some of this is out of his hands,” former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said in a phone interview. “If it’s a race between Joe Donnelly and Richard Mourdock, I think Joe Donnelly has an excellent chance of winning that race. If it’s a proxy for the presidential race or the dominant ideology of the two political parties, it’s harder for him to win.”

Donnelly enters the race as an underdog, even with Mourdock as his foe. But Democrats have a better shot at picking up this seat without Lugar on the ballot because they don’t have to compete with the six-term Senator’s wide crossover appeal. Accordingly, Roll Call is changing the rating of this race to Leans Republican from our previous rating of Likely Republican.

First and foremost, for Democrats to compete in the Hoosier State, national politics must play in their favor. In 2010, Sen. Dan Coats (R) walloped then-Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) by 15 points in an open-seat race, in no small part because of the national GOP wave.

President Barack Obama doesn’t have to win Indiana again like in 2008, but he has to keep his loss under 6 points, according to a Democratic source from the state. In the meantime, Donnelly will attempt to distance himself from the president during this campaign, but his fate remains somewhat tied to the White House.

Joe Donnelly is going to run around and try to tell everyone that he’s a different kind of Democrat, a Blue Dog, a conservative,” Indiana Republican consultant Chris Faulkner said. “But at the end of the day, it’s a team sport, and he’s wearing the wrong jersey.”

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