Six years ago, Indiana Democrats didn't bother fielding a candidate against Sen. Richard Lugar. But with his loss in Tuesday's Republican primary, they think they have a real chance to take Lugar's seat.
Democrats argue that the new GOP nominee, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, will prove too conservative even for the Republican-leaning state.
"There's a lot of animus here because of the way Mourdock has campaigned," says Ann DeLaney, a former Indiana Democratic Party official.
Going up against Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in the fall, Mourdock faces the challenge of healing the rifts caused by his race against Lugar, a former Indianapolis mayor who has represented Indiana in the Senate since 1977. For most of those years, Lugar was considered as influential in state GOP politics as he was with regard to foreign policy and weapons of mass destruction in Washington.
In his concession speech Tuesday, Lugar backed Mourdock. But a longer statement from Lugar might give Democrats some fodder in promoting the idea of Donnelly as the longtime senator's logical successor:
"If Mr. Mourdock is elected, I want him to be a good senator. But that will require him to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington. He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. ... He has pledged his support to groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican Party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it."
Mourdock didn't challenge that characterization in an appearance on Fox, according to Politico. "I have a mindset that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view," Mourdock said.
Mourdock's attacks on Lugar during the campaign were not just echoed but amplified by interest groups such as the National Rifle Association, FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth. Their combined spending against Lugar was much larger than Mourdock's own campaign treasury.
Three of the state's congressional districts also saw heated Republican primaries between hard-line conservatives and candidates who were considered more creatures of the party establishment.
"This blows up the Republican Party in the state of Indiana," says Kip Tew, a former state Democratic Party chairman.
But Steve Shine, who is chairman of the GOP in Allen County, which includes Fort Wayne, says Democrats are allowing themselves to engage in wishful thinking. He notes that GOP Rep. Mike Pence is the favorite to hold the governorship and that Democrats at this point are totally shut out of statewide offices and hold weak minority positions within the state Legislature.
Although Barack Obama carried Indiana in 2008, he was the first Democrat to have done so since 1964 and is considered unlikely to repeat the feat come November. Shine argues that the president will be a drag on the Democratic ticket in general.
"The Democrats will have an extremely difficult time," Shine says. "Indiana is becoming a more and more conservative state."
No recent polls have been conducted anticipating a Mourdock-Donnelly matchup, but a March survey showed the two men tied at 35 percent each. Mourdock's name recognition since that time, however, has increased considerably.
But Democrats now think independents and some Republicans will share the opinion Lugar himself expressed about Mourdock: that he is "unqualified" to serve in the U.S. Senate.
"There are a lot of people in the Republican Party who are Lugar supporters who will not vote for Richard Mourdock in the fall," says Ed Feigenbaum, editor of Indiana Legislative Insight, a political newsletter. "Democrats have got a good shot."
And as The Washington Post reports, Donnelly has political attributes that may appeal to many Lugar Republicans:
"A pro-gun, pro-life, pro-Keystone pipeline, anti-illegal immigration and anti-climate change legislation Blue Dog, Donnelly has a lot in common with Lugar, especially as someone who sees working across the aisle as the only way to get anything done."
And the Post quotes Donnelly: "I hear from everybody, and they say, 'Joe, nowhere but in Washington do they think not working together makes sense.' We're not hired to fight. My question about everything I do is, does it make our country stronger?"
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