Indiana Senate Race No Longer A Sure Shot For GOP

Indiana's Treasurer Richard Mourdock beat veteran Republican Senator Richard Lugar in a contentious primary battle earlier this year. Mourdock was the darling of Tea Party activists. But it turns out that Lugar was the darling of the general electorate. Now polls have the race as a toss up. Sensing the possibility of picking up a Republican Senate seat, outside money is starting to pour into Indiana to aid Representative Joe Donnelly, the Democratic nominee.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. In the 2008 election, Indiana was a surprise. It voted for Barack Obama by a tiny margin. Typically, it's a solidly red state. And this year, Indiana seems on the verge of a Republican sweep, that is, except in the race there for U.S. Senate. The campaign to replace longtime Republican Richard Lugar is heating up in the Hoosier state.

Though Lugar is out of the running, that doesn't mean he's out of the race as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: When you represent a state for almost 40 years in the Senate the way Republican Dick Lugar did here in Indiana, you cast a giant shadow.

REPRESENTATIVE JOE DONNELLY: Dick Lugar is an American hero. He served in the U.S. Navy. He served as Indianapolis mayor. He served in the United States Senate, helped reduce nuclear weapons for the entire world.

GLINTON: Here's a clue about how the Senate race in Indiana is looking. That's Democrat Joe Donnelly.

DONNELLY: Here is a man who dedicated his entire life to our country and was treated horribly by the Mourdock campaign.

GLINTON: Donnelly, a congressman from northern Indiana, is running against Republican Richard Mourdock, the state's treasurer. Donnelly is walking a precarious line in a traditionally red state. His ads and signs barely mention that he's a Democrat, and he's quick to pivot away from being tied to the national party.

DONNELLY: I know that Hoosiers are focused not on Democrat or Republican, but on how do we make our state stronger, how do we make our country stronger? The voters want to hear what you have to say on issues. They don't want to hear about national politics and national nonsense.

GLINTON: Bill Blomquist teaches political science at IUPUI, a state university in Indianapolis. He says there's a reason that the Democrat Joe Donnelly is praising Dick Lugar.

BILL BLOMQUIST: His ouster has made it more difficult for Indiana Republican voters to coalesce around the nominee Richard Mourdock although he beat Senator Lugar soundly in the primary. And it wasn't close. It was 60 to 40.

GLINTON: Blomquist says Donnelly is trying hard to pick up those so-called Lugar Republicans. Meanwhile, Mourdock is a favorite among Tea Party activists who see him as the embodiment of that movement.

RICHARD MOURDOCK: Pat, good to see you. Well, thank you all so very much for being here.

GLINTON: Here's Mourdock greeting supporters at a small rally in Jeffersonville, Indiana, just across the Ohio River from Louisville. Mourdock says the primary was months ago and Republicans have gotten over it.

MOURDOCK: Certainly, there are swing voters in Indiana that never associate themselves formally with Republicans or Democrats. Do we have to win some of those votes? Yeah, without question. The baseline vote in Indiana, especially in this election, is going to be much more Republican than Democrat. But do we need to win independent voters? Absolutely.

GLINTON: The race is tight. The latest polls show that Mourdock and Donnelly are less than three points apart. To give you an idea, though, in a general election, the last four times Lugar ran, he got more than two-thirds of the vote. Kristy Sheeler teaches political communication at IUPUI. She says Democrats aren't likely to pick Mourdock over Donnelly.

KRISTY SHEELER: And especially with the Lugar Republicans, I don't know that they have an affinity for one candidate or the other. I think there are a lot of them who are just really ticked off at what happened and so are going to stay home rather than go to the polls because they're just ticked off at the Mourdock campaign and they're not really all that excited about the Donnelly campaign.

LINDSAY QUANDT: Ultimately, I don't think that the Republican primary voters understand what they did in losing Senator Lugar.

GLINTON: Lindsay Quandt is 28 and a Republican who lives in Indianapolis. She calls herself a Lugar Republican. She worries, though, Mourdock will be too polarizing.

QUANDT: And I hope that that's not the case. I hope that there's something that I'm going to learn in the next 30-some odd days that's going to prove that wrong.

GLINTON: Quandt won't likely get any guidance from Senator Lugar. He's made it clear he won't be hitting the campaign trail. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Bloomington, Indiana.

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