By Brian Howey
To his credit, he aptly picked up on the brewing Tea Party unrest, articulated a case against U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, and convinced three national groups – Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the National Rifle Association – to pump more than $4 million on behalf of his campaign.
The result was a stunning 61-39 percent upset of Lugar, with Mourdock basing his candidacy on attacking the concept of “bipartisanship.”
The old Nixonian axiom of run to the right in the primary, run to the center in the general, seemed to be a cogent path for Mourdock. While my Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll in late March showed Lugar easily leading Democrat Joe Donnelly 50-29 percent, Mourdock and Donnelly were tied at 35 percent. If Mourdock moderated his pitch to a degree, he could position himself to pick up the needed independent and even moderate voters. He already has the Tea Party base in his pocket, but even in Indiana, you have to carry moderate Republicans and independents to win.
Mourdock views his victory as an ideological one, but Howey/DePauw polling revealed that only 15 percent voted for him based on the Tea Party agenda. Most believed that Lugar was too old and had been in Congress too long.
But in the days after the landslide over Lugar, Mourdock’s campaign sent a fundraising letter out to Hoosier Republicans that raised some eyebrows and had the heads of Lugarites shaking.
"Conservatives scored a tremendous victory in Indiana just a few weeks ago," the Mourdock letter read. "Against all odds and with the establishment working day and night to defeat me, we retired a 36-year entrenched incumbent senator, who routinely betrayed conservative voters to push through some of the most radical aspects of President Obama's agenda."
This notion of “betrayal” has a number of Lugarites fuming.
Mourdock had been critical of Lugar votes for President Obamas's Supreme Court nominees Kagan and Sotomayor and the START Treaty, something Lugar supported predating the Obama presidency. But as Lugar supporters note, he opposed all aspects of Obamacare, the stimulus, as well as the carbon tax proposals.
What is emerging in late summer is Mourdock is still playing to his Tea Party base and not making inroads with voters who don't buy into the parts of his candidacy that favored voting against the debt ceiling and allowing the U.S. to go into default, as well as attempting to derail the Chrysler-Fiat merger, once calling it his “Rosa Parks moment.”
Polling has consistently shown that Mourdock has ground to make up with independents (61 percent who favored the auto rescue in a March Howey/DePauw Poll) and with Lugarites. In my polling last spring, 57 percent of Lugar voters had a negative view of Mourdock, compared to 12 percent who viewed him positively. In a tight race with Donnelly, Mourdock needs every Republican voter he can get.
In the Rasmussen Reports Poll released last Sunday, Mourdock was in a dead heat with Donnelly, leading 42-40 percent, well within the 5 percent margin of error. And it was a Republican heavy sample at 45 percent. Among those who labeled themselves as "moderates," Donnelly led Mourdock 50 to 23 percent.
In the same survey set, Mitt Romney was leading President Obama 51-35 percent, so there is a huge drop off for Mourdock. That is a problem, because about $5 million had been spent on his behalf prior to the primary, and close to another $1 million since.
In a Washington Post interview, Mourdock was asked if he was worried about winning over the more moderate Lugar voters. "I worry about everything every day, so of course I do," Mourdock responded. "But the primary showed Indiana voters look past negative attacks. Lugar spent a lot on negative attacks and it didn't work."
Asked if he had been in touch with Lugar supporters, Mourdock responded, "Not directly, no. But in the end, he is a Republican."
And it's not as if Lugar hasn't tried help. He introduced Mourdock to Senate Republicans in July. This came after he warned Mourdock on May 6 that the nominee should “revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington. This is not conducive to problem solving and governance. And he will find that unless he modifies his approach, he will achieve little as a legislator."
As for his Tea Party speech in Dallas last month in which he equated his effort to derail the Chrysler/Fiat merger to the Civil War era issue of slavery, Mourdock said, "People will have to make their own judgment.”
A more vivid contrast even within the Tea Party realm came on Fox News Sunday, when Tea Party nominee Ted Cruz of Texas was asked if he would work with Democrats. "I am perfectly happy to compromise and work with anybody," Cruz said. "Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians. I'll work with Martians. If -- and the if is critical -- they're willing to cut spending and reduce the debt."
And that's Mourdock's problem with Lugarites. They view him as a bomb thrower who will simply make Capitol Hill even more polarized than it is. Mourdock's fundraising letter of May citing Lugar "betrayal" doesn't help his cause.