Donnelly began the cycle as an underdog, with lackluster fundraising numbers in a solidly red state. But a misstep from his Republican opponent at the end of the campaign boosted the lawmaker and may have made the difference in the tight race. In the end, Donnelly beat Mourdock by about 6 points.
There were subsequent meetings every few weeks — sandwiches at a downtown Indianapolis law firm and pizza at the party headquarters. As each encounter went by, candidates pulled their names out of the ring.
By spring, Donnelly didn’t have any competition to take on a race some viewed as a quixotic bid to stay in Congress. Republicans redrew his congressional district, making it even more difficult for a Democrat to retain.
“Donnelly had to slug it through in 2011 and not have good fundraising quarters,” Parker recalled. “The strategy was, we have to survive until May.”
During that long year, Donnelly crisscrossed the state for Jefferson-Jackson dinners, preferring county roads and a time-consuming navigation system his staff refers to “Joe-PS.” En route to Plymouth, Donnelly ordered his aide to short-stop the car so he could usher a snapping turtle across the two-lane road with a cardboard box. He was already late.
For Donnelly, the GOP primary moved at tortoise speed, but it helped him that the focus was entirely on Mourdock’s bid to unseat six-term Sen. Richard G. Lugar.
Mourdock stumbled frequently, also posting terrible fundraising numbers and irking national conservatives at the start. But Lugar’s campaign fared worse. The octogenarian had not run a competitive race in three decades — and it showed. On May 8, he lost his primary by nearly 20 points.
Mourdock took a victory lap on cable television after his primary win in May. The race drained the former geologist’s bank account, and his team believed he could bank $30,000 to $40,000 per appearance in fundraising.
During that money-making media tour, Mourdock halfheartedly teased in a MSNBC interview, “To me, the highlight of politics is to inflict my opinion on someone else.” Democrats repeated this clip ad nauseam throughout the general election. They defined Mourdock as an uncompromising extremist in one of the cycle’s few examples of Democrats outspending GOP outside groups over the summer.
More disappointing for Mourdock’s team was that his fundraising didn’t improve much in the first couple of months of the general election. A divisive primary left many former Lugar supporters — some of the state’s biggest GOP donors — on the sidelines.
“I don’t know what’s worse: Hyperpartisans for Richard Mourdock blaming everyone but themselves for the loss, or hyperpartisans for Richard Lugar saying, ‘I told you so,’” said Chris Faulkner, a Republican consultant from Indiana. “Neither attitude is helpful.”
Several members of Mourdock’s team did not return interview requests for this story. But it’s clear some of their emotions are still raw: Mourdock’s campaign spokesman, Brose McVey, simply replied via email, “Not ready to talk yet.”
But it’s clear the campaign made two strategic errors over the summer: Mourdock never bridged the gap with Lugar’s supporters, and his rhetoric never graduated from the primary. Meanwhile, Donnelly had the opportunity to run a general election campaign from the start.
“It’s the [Frank] O’Bannon Plan,” said Donnelly, referring to the late Democratic governor of Indiana. “We got about 15 percent of Republicans, got the majority of independents, [in addition to] Democrats. It’s not complicated. You reach out to everybody.”