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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.

Geographically, Democrats adhere to a battle-tested equation to win statewide in Indiana, according to several interviews with operatives from both parties.

A candidate must run up the score in three reliable Democratic base areas: Lake County in Rep. Peter Visclosky’s (D) northwestern district near Chicago, Indianapolis and its suburbs in Marion County, and the “Auto Belt” around the blue-collar towns of Kokomo, Muncie and Anderson.

Secondly, Democrats must be competitive in southern Indiana in the current 8th and 9th districts. A Democrat must perform decently in areas like Vanderburgh County — the opposite side of the state from Donnelly’s home in north-central Indiana.

That’s why, for the past several months, Donnelly has spent a great deal of time in southern Indiana, near the small towns along the Ohio River. A source close to the Donnelly campaign argued that his socially conservative profile will play well in that region.

“Take the Ohio River area,” the source said. “And you take guns, [abortion] and gay rights issues off the table — we can turn back the tide a little there.”

Southern Indiana was competitive territory for Democrats until recently. The twin House seats in the southern part of the state flipped party control several times over the past decade.

But unfortunately for Donnelly, Mourdock is from Evansville, in Indiana’s southwestern tip. Also, Ellsworth was from southern Indiana (Vanderburgh), and it didn’t help him much with his Senate race.

Finally, Democrats must do a much better job than Lugar’s campaign did in painting Mourdock as an extreme, right-wing candidate. In the hours leading up to his victory, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee branded Mourdock as a tea party candidate in the vein of 2010 GOP Senate nominees Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado.

But Mourdock is more tested on the campaign trail than either of those failed nominees. Mourdock has held office for the majority of the past 20 years, including seven years as a county commissioner and two successful elections to the state treasurer’s office.

Ironically, Democrats’ greatest asset in the Senate race could be a wealth of opposition research on Mourdock that the Lugar campaign never unearthed or used. For example, Democrats regularly sent a video tracker to Mourdock events for more than  a year, while Lugar’s team only intermittently followed him during the primary.

“You’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg,” Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker warned. “A lot of it [Lugar] couldn’t use because it was a Republican primary — either that or he didn’t do it, or didn’t find it.”

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