NASHVILLE, Ind. — With Colorado, Delaware and Nevada nagging reminders of how a tea party candidate can botch a Senate race — and a potential majority, which happened in 2010 — Indiana Republicans remain in danger of losing a Senate seat.
GOP nominee Richard Mourdock trails Democrat Joe Donnelly 40 percent to 38 percent in the latest Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll. Libertarian nominee Andrew Horning is pulling 7 percent, perhaps bleeding away crucial support for the candidate who upset U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar in the May primary.
With Republican gubernatorial nominee Mike Pence leading John Gregg 47-34 percent and Mitt Romney up over President Obama 52-40 percent, Mourdock’s numbers represent a dramatic drop-off in support.
From the beginning of Mourdock’s campaign, I was both fascinated and repelled by his core message: a strident opposition to bipartisanship and compromise. Few candidates had ever taken such an unvarnished, extreme view of our legislative process, which requires consensus between the parties, usually coming between two initial positions.
By August, fallout from this core message finally dawned on Mourdock and his campaign. He backtracked, using Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman as a surrogate to assure us he will “work with both Republicans and Democrats.”
But Mourdock’s actions since then cast further doubt on his sincerity. He is hiding from voters, instead using the millions of dollars of Super PACs who are buying his vote for the TV ads you see every day. Libertarian nominee Andrew Horning says the three candidates have been invited to more than a dozen candidate forums, but Mourdock is not participating.
Other than several Republican events, Mourdock made just a handful of public appearances since Aug. 1, contrasted by Donnelly, who is out on the campaign trail almost every day when Congress is not in session. Mourdock turned down an interview with the Republican-leaning Wall Street Journal this week. The Associated Press called this message twist “Extreme Makeover: Mourdock edition.” The Mourdock campaign finally agreed to debate, just two weeks before the first one is scheduled.
The story line is this: Mourdock’s national handlers are so wary of a “Todd Akin moment” that they are urging him to stay under wraps.
More troubling for Mourdock is he is losing support in the Republican-rich doughnut counties around Indianapolis. He leads Donnelly there by only 36-32 percent while Pence is up 24 points and Romney by 18.
While Mourdock’s favorables stood at 45.5 percent with Republicans, only 18.4 percent of independents — the voting block likely to determine this race — view him favorably while 32.4 percent were unfavorable.
Indiana Republicans took a historic gamble in May when they traded 36-year veteran Lugar for Treasurer Mourdock, who galvanized a tea party base and GOP dissatisfaction over Lugar’s judicial votes and earmark support to forge a historic upset. Lugar had a commanding 50-29 percent lead over Donnelly in the March Howey/DePauw poll.
But in the critical 48 hours after his primary win, Mourdock conducted several national TV interviews in which he continued the rhetoric that made him a tea party hero, but left some Lugar supporters and independents unenthused about his candidacy. Mourdock is getting 60 percent of the Lugar primary vote, though 10 percent say they may change their mind.
In interviews on CNN and MSNBC, Mourdock espoused his strident opposition to compromise with Democrats — unless they came to the Republican position — and bipartisanship. On an MSNBC interview, a smirking Mourdock said he enjoyed nothing more than “inflicting my opinion on someone else.”
It provided Donnelly, Indiana Democrats and supporting 527 Super PACs a cache of video that is now being used in TV ads against Mourdock.
Mourdock is polling only 71 percent of the Republican vote while Donnelly is getting 78.3 percent of the Democratic vote. Donnelly is polling 15.3 percent of Lugar primary voters. This indicates that Mourdock is coming up short in consolidating his GOP base.
The Mourdock campaign is acting rattled, restricting his schedule and media availability while attempting to change his core message. They will shift to another ploy: nationalize the race and say a vote for Donnelly is a vote for Majority Leader Harry Reid. That might work, though polling in Senate races in Massachusetts, Ohio and Florida are showing a Democratic surge.
The questions voters should be asking are these: Does this candidate want to be a legislator who gets things done? Or a partisan warrior in a system that is already gridlocked as the extreme wings drive the party agendas?
Howey, a former Elkhart Truth reporter, publishes at www.howeypolitics.com.