INDIANAPOLIS — Democratic Senate candidate
nods and nods as a voter heaps praise on outgoing Republican Senator Dick Lugar at a neighborhood picnic. “A fine man,’’ agrees Donnelly, who is not only running to replace him but to continue Lugar’s endangered tradition of aisle-crossing centrism.
After he moves on, the voter, Peggy Hu, says she hasn’t made up her mind about Donnelly, a congressman from Granger, Ind., outside South Bend. But she definitely won’t be voting for his Republican opponent, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a tea party favorite whom she hasn’t forgiven for running what she considered an unfair campaign against a man who did a lot for the Chinese community here, and for the state.
Although most national observers like Mourdock’s chances — the Cook Political Report, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball and the Rothenberg Political Report all say the race is leaning Republican — polling showed Mourdock and Donnelly tied at 35 percent in March and 40 percent in May. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has invested in Donnelly. And voters in the state, where my parents will be voting for Mourdock, make me think Donnelly does have a shot, in part because of a series of unusually effective campaign ads that push off Mourdock’s vow not to compromise if elected, or ever drift into bipartisanship.
The ads, which were dreamed up by consultant Bill Knapp, not only neatly tie Donnelly to Lugar, but feature a Mourdock impersonator in a sports car who shouts, “Hey, Donnelly, it’s my way or the highway!’’ — then peels out, tires squealing. (Who was that guy? Why, a friend of Donnelly’s who’s a funeral director, in his dramatic debut.)
“Had enough?” Donnelly asks in the ad, after the faux Mourdock drives away. “I work for jobs, not a party.”
Essentially, Donnelly is betting that Hoosiers want their elected representatives to cooperate with the opposition, make some laws already and get something done. Ric and Deb Wrye, who live in Salem, Ind., and were in town for a Kenny Chesney concert, say Mourdock’s pledge never to bend is exactly why they won’t be voting for him — although like Peggy Hu, they don’t yet know much about Donnelly.
Ric describes himself as so Republican that he almost always votes a straight ticket, and he once told his wife, a registered independent, that he wasn’t sure he could love a woman who didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan. (Deb notes that she has kept her presidential choices to herself ever since.) “People say nothing gets done in Washington, but I’m going to vote for someone who’s promising not to get anything done? I’m an engineer by training,’’ he says, “and that’s not logical; it doesn’t make sense to me.’’
At a news conference in the state capital last Friday, Mourdock answered the “my way or the highway” ads this way: “I’m certainly going to work with anyone who wants to stop big government spending and make government smaller’’ — in other words, with any Democrat who agrees with him.
That’s how it has to be, he tells me in an interview afterward, because there is such a fundamental divide between the parties: “Either we’re making government smaller or we’re making it larger. The only other option is leaving things the way we are, and no one is saying we should do that.”
Mourdock had just made some news at the FreePAC tea party convention in Dallas, where he told the crowd — just as he’d told me in an interview last spring — that the Chrysler bailout he tried to block in court involved a moral choice no less stark than one Americans faced during the Civil War. Again on Friday, he said that when he says, ”You toil and I will eat it,’’ he isn’t comparing the tea party crowd to slaves, but arguing that the government was unjust in seizing private property — which is how he views the loans to the auto industry.
How do those headlines help him with Lugar voters like the Wryes, especially against a centrist like Donnelly? They don’t — but he also raised money in Texas, right? “Yes; I’m not going to waste time if I’m there.” In the primary, his campaign was heavily funded by out-of-state groups including the Club for Growth, headed by Chris Chocola, who lost his congressional seat to Donnelly in 2006.
Mourdock challenges my description of Donnelly, though: “He’s not a moderate. That’s what he wants you to believe, but don’t fall for that. I tell people, ‘If you liked Barack Obama, you’ll love Joe Donnelly.’’ His ads suggest that the deficit has not coincidentally grown wildly since Donnelly was elected to Congress — and that since then, the former small-business owner has supported the stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act, and repeatedly voted to raise the debt ceiling.
Donnelly also opposes abortion rights, cap-and-trade — remember cap-and-trade? — and is so strongly pro-gun that in 2010, the NRA endorsed him over his extremely conservative challenger, Jackie Walorski, who’s running for the seat again this year.
After an AFL-CIO rally at a downtown park, Donnelly gets all jacked up talking about how important it is to get a farm relief bill passed — and how terrible it is that Republicans haven’t scheduled a vote. Driving up from Evansville in the southern part of the state, I’d passed mile after mile of cornfields so burned up they wouldn’t make a meal for a pig; does he ever look at that and think maybe it’s time to talk about climate change? Voters never ask about it, he said, and “I don’t talk about that. That’s a conversation for another day.” Isn’t it always?
Some supporters from Donnelly’s district come over to the picnic table to say hi, and one laughs about planting a Mourdock sign in his front yard during the primary, and voting for him, too, says the man, Steve Hartoin of Logansport, “because I thought he’d be easier for you to beat.” Unless cash infusions from outside the state overwhelm Donnelly, he will be. But, of course, that’s a Chrysler-sized caveat.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post politics writer and anchors the paper’s She the People blog, a forum for female writers. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.