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Joe Donnelly's narrow win was built on a typical Democratic power base

All it took for U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly to claim re-election Tuesday were a few wins in large areas -- with, perhaps, a bit of help from a Libertarian.

Posted on Nov. 4, 2010 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on Nov. 4, 2010 at 12:17 p.m.

See how big wins made for a narrow victory in Joe Donnelly's favor here.

All it took for U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly to claim re-election Tuesday were a few wins in large areas -- with, perhaps, a bit of help from a Libertarian.

Donnelly, D-Granger, scored a slim victory over State Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Elkhart, in his bid for a third term representing the 2nd District. He won by just 2,543 votes -- about 1.3 percent of the 189,562 votes cast.

Despite losing eight of the district's 12 counties to Walorski, Donnelly's big margins in the two largest counties more than made up for the difference.

"In many of the counties, it was a competitive race," Mike Schmuhl, Donnelly's campaign manager, said Wednesday. "You could almost say that about every county."

Map out Tuesday's results in the 2nd District and the votes reflect traditional national patterns -- the Democrat won the heavily populated urban areas, while the Republican dominated the more rural sections. Of the smallest nine counties in the district, Walorski won seven.

Dividing the district into three groups -- large, medium and small counties -- further illustrates the importance of Donnelly's urban vote. If you were to combine the votes cast in the three largest counties, (St. Joseph, LaPorte and Elkhart, containing 67.5 percent of all votes) Donnelly won that constituency by 7.7 percent.

That margin was larger than Walorski's combined victories in the three midsize counties (5.8 percent) and the six smallest counties (7.2 percent).

The Donnelly campaign knew it would be a close finish, Schmuhl said, given how tough of a year it was for incumbents. But when the incumbent led late with much of traditionally Democratic LaPorte County still uncounted, he got the feeling victory was near.

"We weren't taking anything for granted," he said. "We were going to wait until 100 percent of precincts and counties had reported."

THE ELKHART IMPACT

Walorski's 2,724-vote winning margin in Elkhart County wasn't as high as local experts expected, either. Only winning her home county -- and a traditionally conservative one at that -- by 14 percent showed Donnelly made significant inroads here, according to IUSB political science professor Elizabeth Bennion.

"I think there was a real concerted effort for Donnelly, as a moderate Democrat, to reach out to voters in Elkhart," Bennion said. "He probably did more of that than he might have otherwise, if he hadn't had a strong viable Republican challenger."

Bob Moore, who runs a conservative study group called the Elkhart County Patriots, said a strong Democratic turnout here helped pump up Donnelly's vote total. It also showed Donnelly had a better get-out-the-vote campaign "than anyone anticipated," he said.

"They really did turn their people out," said Moore, who served as election inspector at an Elkhart precinct Tuesday and is active in the local tea party movement.

Donnelly acknowledged that harsh economic circumstances here caused him to spend more time on Elkhart County issues the last two years than other areas. His frequent refrain, echoed by Schmuhl Wednesday, "the best campaign strategy is just to do your job," is evidence of what Bennion labels the "permanent campaign."

Office holders benefit from the ability to share their message during the entire term, she said. Donnelly's persistent claim that he's an independent voice for the state appears to still ring true with just enough constituents, she said.

"He has been targeting his message to make sure that most voters do not see him as a beltway liberal," she said. "He's done that not just now, but throughout his entire time in office."

Walorski's campaign did not respond to a phone message requesting comment Wednesday.

THE VOGEL INFLUENCE

As the campaigns and political analysts sorted through Tuesday's results, South Bend Libertarian Mark Vogel's showing jumped off the page.

After receiving just 3 percent of the vote in the 2008 race, he claimed about 5 percent this year. Had a large portion of his 9,445 votes gone to Walorski, the 2nd District could have had a new representative to Congress.

But it can't be assumed, Bennion said, that Vogel stole votes from only the Republican. Studies of independent presidential candidate Ross Perot's strong total in 1992, she said, indicate he drew votes almost equally from GOP and Democratic supporters.

It's also possible that a third party presence on the ballot drew people to the polls who were unlikely to vote regardless, she said.

"This is not, of course, unprecedented in American politics," Bennion said. "Any third-party candidate is always charged with playing the role of the spoiler."

Like Walorski, Vogel claimed a larger portion of votes in more rural areas, including nearly 7 percent of ballots in the six smallest counties. He took just 4.4 percent of the vote in the three largest counties, suggesting he had greater appeal in the district's more conservative territory.

Vogel, for one, believes he had no bearing on the race's eventual outcome. His candidacy simply gave a voice to voters who wouldn't have had one otherwise, he said Wednesday in a statement.

"I really don't believe there was the affect (sic) that many might wish to believe," he said. "People who voted for me simply were not being represented by the other two candidates or their parties."

Bennion, though, highlights two key examples that indicate Donnelly and state Democrats knew Vogel was an asset to them all along.

To start, the Donnelly campaign was the first to invite Vogel to participate in the sole televised debate (an offer it didn't make in 2008), forcing Walorski to follow suit.

Second, the Indiana Democratic Party sent a controversial districtwide mailing last weekend, promoting Vogel as the only "true conservative" in the race. While it's possible this deterred as many votes for Vogel as it attracted, Bennion said, its impact was likely significant.

"It made sense strategically for the Democratic Party to say, 'Look, if there are votes we're not going to win,'" she said, "'we don't want Walorski to win them, either.'"

Truth staff writer Tim Vandenack contributed to this report.


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