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.
Despite Mourdock’s foibles, he entered the final debate with an advantage. But the entire race changed in a single, convoluted sentence.
“And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen,” an emotional Mourdock answered to an open-ended question on abortion.
Immediately, operatives on both sides separately questioned, “Did he just say that?”
Republicans had practiced this question with Mourdock. The National Republican Senatorial Committee brought in one of the party’s top debate coaches, Brett O’Donnell, to prepare him. (O’Donnell declined to comment.)
Ironically, Donnelly never practiced that question once, according to his sparring partner in mock debate practice, Bill Moreau.
“The one thing we didn’t work on was the abortion question,” said Moreau, a former chief of staff to former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh. “There was absolutely no need to. Joe Donnelly has had the same position on abortion since I first met him in 1988.”
After the debate, Mourdock entered the green room expecting high-fives from his aides. Dumbfounded, he spent the next days explaining and apologizing for his comment instead.
Donnelly had to double-check with his aides before he spoke with reporters about the comment. He didn’t realize the full extent of Mourdock’s words until his college roommate called him from Chicago the next morning. He had just seen Mourdock’s awkward phrase lead the newscast on “The Today Show.”
“I almost didn’t fully comprehend it,” Donnelly said. “I thought I had heard that, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to say anything right at that point. If I was wrong, it wouldn’t have been appropriate.”
The Worst Possible Time
It’s impossible to know whether Donnelly won because of Mourdock’s mishap. Democrats estimate it cost the Republican 4 points in the polls, and Donnelly won the race by nearly 6 points.
But Republicans have no doubt he lost the race because of it.
“He was literally 12 minutes away from being a U.S. senator,” said an operative who worked on Mourdock’s race who declined to be named. “Every other key indicator in that race was going the right way until 48 minutes into the debate.”
The incident hit Mourdock’s campaign at the worst possible time: Too late for him to recover.
Democrats blasted his words all over the state. Voters, especially moderate Republican women around Indianapolis, were already looking for a reason not to vote for Mourdock, or to stay out of the race completely.