By Brian Howey
NEW ALBANY – In the press filing room at Indiana University Southeast, the U.S. Senate debate was heading into the 45 minute mark, the candidates had been asked about abortion, and Republican nominee Richard Mourdock was speaking. In my estimation, he was winning this debate, pushing Democrat Joe Donnelly on his Obamacare vote.
But now, he was on the verge of tears.
Questions on abortion come up often in Indiana politics from public forums to questionnaires, and you expect the candidates to succinctly state their positions at this stage. Mourdock could have said, “I am a pro-life candidate and I have been endorsed by Indiana Right to Life.”
Instead, Mourdock took 10 seconds to say: "This is that issue that every federal or state candidate faces and I too certainly stand for life. I know there are some who disagree and I respect their point of view, but I believe that life begins at conception. Uh, the only exception I have for an abortion is in that case of the life of the mother. I struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realize that life is a gift from God. And I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape that it is something God intended to happen."
The reaction in the filing room was similar to that scene from the movie “Network” during the first Howard Beale rant. It took a few seconds to sink in, then someone asked, “What did he just say?”
Within seconds, social media exploded with reaction. Within a day, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign released a statement saying that Mourdock did not “reflect my views.” Indiana gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence called on Mourdock to apologize, as did 2nd CD Republican Jackie Walorski. New Hampshire U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte cancelled an appearance with Mourdock.
At a time when a campaign should be finishing off the homestretch with a rhetorical flourish and concentrating on get out the vote mechanisms, Mourdock had lobbed a cinder block into a big mud puddle, and it splashed across the GOP spectrum.
The lesson that Mourdock failed to comprehend occurred last August in Missouri, when Republican Senate nominee Todd Akin said in a TV interview, "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down."
The reaction was similar. Republicans deserted the nominee in droves and essentially wrote what had been a very winnable Senate seat off. As Mourdock kept a low profile, refused to make joint appearances with Donnelly and Horning, and didn’t agree to debate until just three weeks ago, there was speculation that his national special interest funders were wary of that “Todd Akin moment.”
And then it actually happened.
Republicans booted U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar out of the nomination, with some seeking ideological purity, though my Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground poll showed that most believed he was too old and had been in office too long. In our first poll in March, Lugar lead Democrat Joe Donnelly 50-29%, while Donnelly and Mourdock were tied at 35%. It’s been a virtual tie in every poll since.
Mourdock should have been reaching out to Lugar Republicans and independents, but he didn’t. In the September Howey/DePauw poll, he was only winning 71 percent of Republicans (he should have been above 80 percent) and only 60 percent of Lugar primary supporters were backing him. He continued to appeal to the Tea Party base instead of wooing in the Lugarites, and appealing to independent voters which survey after survey showed would determine the winner.
That Libertarian Andy Horning was getting 7 percent of the vote in our September survey and 8 percent in a Global Strategies poll last week shows that many of these Republicans didn’t want to vote for Donnelly, but they didn’t like Mourdock. When the Washington Post asked Mourdock last summer if he was seeking out Lugar voters, he said “no,” and insisted that Republicans would return to his fold.
Republicans can blame the “liberal” media and Democrats. But when you look at the most damning things said concerning Richard Mourdock, they came out of his own mouth.
There was the MSNBC interview the day after he upset Lugar when he said his favorite thing was to “inflict my opinion on someone else.”
There was tracker video of him questioning the constitutionality of Medicare and Social Security before a Madison Tea Party group. Another time, he was shown saying the Republican Party “needs more zealots.” He told the state’s largest newspaper his emphasis would be to recruit and campaign for candidates like himself.
It will be a week or before the full damage of Mourdock’s debate statement can be gauged. But at this writing, there was speculation that it could reverberate into the presidential and gubernatorial races.
And, that my Republican friends, is inexcusable for a Senate nominee just two weeks before what many had posed as the most critical election this nation has faced in years.
Whether, some how, some way he pulls this thing out, or he loses, the undisputable fact will always be . . . we’ve never seen a candidate quite like Richard Mourdock.
The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.