On a night when moderate members of Congress continued their forced exodus from Capitol Hill, Representative Donnelly, a member of the House’s dwindling caucus of moderate Democrats, beat state Treasurer Richard Mourdock 49 percent to 45 percent, with 86 percent of the vote reporting.
“We have a tradition of Richard Lugar and Evan Bayh and people working together,” Donnelly said in a conference call with reporters late Tuesday night, “and that’s something I intend to continue to do.”
Mr. Mourdock, a favorite of conservative activists and powerful independent conservative groups that spent heavily on his behalf, was far from moderate.
He crushed Sen. Richard Lugar (R), a longtime incumbent who frequently worked with Democrats, in the party’s primary in the late spring. But from that point, Moudock laid down one controversial statement after another, from announcing that his favorite thing was to “inflict” his opinion on other people to questioning the constitutionality of Medicare and Social Security.
And that was all before the state treasurer’s final debate with Donnelly. Asked about exceptions under which abortion would be defensible, Mourdock said, “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."
Mourdock was in for a tight race even in a state that voted for Mitt Romney by a wide margin, because of Donnelly’s moderate political positions, says Marjorie Hershey, a professor of political science at Indiana University in Bloomington.
But by focusing attention on a position not uncommon among conservative, religious Republicans – that there should be no exemption allowed for abortions in the case of rape – Mourdock put a torch to his electoral prospects.
“The stand that Mourdock took is the stand for the Republican Party for a long time,” says Professor Hershey in a phone interview. “This is not a shock, this is not a surprise, this is widespread. But I think bringing it out as the debate did really made the difference for a lot of women.”
Exit polls showed Donnelly winning female voters by a 52 percent to 42 percent clip over Mourdock. Mourdock faired more than 10 percentage points worse among women than Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, who won Hoosier State women by 52 percent to 47 percent.
But what got Donnelly in the game was what he calls “Hoosier common sense,” a middle-of-the-road approach to politics and a low-key demeanor filled with promises such as a willingness to “walk from Lake Michigan to the Ohio River if we can get 10 more jobs.”
“The moderates on both sides have been going down like flies over the last 10 years,” says Hershey. “But Indiana under the right circumstances can move in the one direction on the other.”
The right circumstances for Donnelly, it turned out, involved playing things right down the middle. And from the middle, he said, is “where great things can happen for our country.”