March 31, 2015 SIGN IN | REGISTER
Roll Call

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, Donnellys unprecedented lead. He knew the math: Its nearly impossible for a Democratic candidate to win statewide if the president loses Indiana by more than a dozen points.

But Donnellys 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 partys 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 Mourdocks inarticulateness. Undoubtedly, the Republican nominees tearful proclamation that pregnancy from rape is something God intended changed the race.

But Mourdocks comments reverberated, in part, because Donnellys team was in a position to take advantage of his opponents rhetorical misstep. Mourdocks team never stopped running a Republican primary campaign and that, exacerbated by the candidates 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. Donnellys 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 partys aspirations before.

I dont 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 basements private dining room at Ricks Boat Yard.

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 didnt 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 Mourdocks 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 Lugars 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.

The Infliction

Mourdock took a victory lap on cable television after his primary win in May. The race drained the former geologists 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 cycles few examples of Democrats outspending GOP outside groups over the summer.

More disappointing for Mourdocks team was that his fundraising didnt improve much in the first couple of months of the general election. A divisive primary left many former Lugar supporters some of the states biggest GOP donors on the sidelines.

I dont know whats 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 Mourdocks team did not return interview requests for this story. But its clear some of their emotions are still raw: Mourdocks campaign spokesman, Brose McVey, simply replied via email, Not ready to talk yet.

But its clear the campaign made two strategic errors over the summer: Mourdock never bridged the gap with Lugars supporters, and his rhetoric never graduated from the primary. Meanwhile, Donnelly had the opportunity to run a general election campaign from the start.

Its the [Frank] OBannon 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. Its not complicated. You reach out to everybody.

God Intended to Happen

Despite Mourdocks 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 partys top debate coaches, Brett ODonnell, to prepare him. (ODonnell 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 didnt 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 didnt realize the full extent of Mourdocks words until his college roommate called him from Chicago the next morning. He had just seen Mourdocks awkward phrase lead the newscast on The Today Show.

I almost didnt fully comprehend it, Donnelly said. I thought I had heard that, but I wasnt sure. I didnt want to say anything right at that point. If I was wrong, it wouldnt have been appropriate.

The Worst Possible Time

Its impossible to know whether Donnelly won because of Mourdocks 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 Mourdocks 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 Mourdocks 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.

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