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Donnelly's Long and Winding Road to the Senate

Michael Conroy/Associated Press
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.

Rep. Joe Donnelly soared down U.S. Route 41 in Indiana in his navy Jeep on the two-hour drive from Terre Haute to Evansville. It was the evening of Oct. 3, and after 18 grueling months of campaigning, Donnelly had received his best poll numbers yet that morning. Flanked by cornfields and Cracker Barrels, he believed he had finally put away his opponent, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

An hour later, Donnelly felt sick to his stomach. On the car radio, he heard the president blow his first debate — and, by proxy, Donnelly’s unprecedented lead. He knew the math: It’s nearly impossible for a Democratic candidate to win statewide if the president loses Indiana by more than a dozen points.

But Donnelly’s circuitous road to the Senate was far from over. He started the cycle as an afterthought on Democrats’ difficult Senate map, spending miserable hours fundraising in the windowless basement of his party’s headquarters. He ended the cycle as one of the Democrats’ all-stars, picking up a Senate seat in a state as red as Hoosier crimson.

Maybe Donnelly got lucky. His detractors and even some supporters argue the congressman would not have won if not for Mourdock’s inarticulateness. Undoubtedly, the Republican nominee’s tearful proclamation that pregnancy from rape is something “God intended” changed the race.

But Mourdock’s comments reverberated, in part, because Donnelly’s team was in a position to take advantage of his opponent’s rhetorical misstep. Mourdock’s team never stopped running a Republican primary campaign — and that, exacerbated by the candidate’s infamous comment, cost him the race.

Basement Bottom

December 2010 marked a low point for Hoosier Democrats. They had just about wiped out in the midterm elections. Donnelly’s friend, Rep. Brad Ellsworth, D-Ind., lost his Senate bid by a whopping 15 points. Democratic Rep. Baron Hill lost by double digits, and Donnelly survived re-election by less than a point.

In the wake of those losses, longtime state Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker summoned more than a dozen Democratic candidates, including Donnelly, Ellsworth and Hill, to lunch at a seafood house on Indianapolis’ west reservoir that month. Parker wanted an open discussion about upcoming statewide races and, above all, to avoid the kind of primary that plagued his party’s aspirations before.

“I don’t know who you are, but one of you is running for Senate and one of you is running for governor,” Parker told the group gathered out of eyesight in the basement’s private dining room at Rick’s Boat Yard.

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