INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Richard Mourdock became one of the tea party’s biggest
winners of the 2012 primary season when he knocked off veteran Indiana Sen.
Richard Lugar in a brutal campaign built on his contention that Lugar was
too old, too out of touch and too friendly with Democrats — a RINO,
Republican in name only.
But the movement’s biggest RINO hunter is now changing his tune as he tries
to woo moderate voters in a tight race that stands as a key test of the tea
party’s ability to win outside the nation’s most conservative states.
Mourdock is matched in the general election against moderate Democratic Rep.
Joe Donnelly, who is running even in recent polls despite Indiana’s
Republican tilt. Suddenly, gone is the strident rhetoric in which Mourdock
proclaimed that bipartisanship meant Democrats coming over to Republicans’
thinking and that winning meant he would “inflict my opinion on someone
else.” In its place are support for parts of President Barack Obama’s health
care overhaul, pledges to protect Democratic-championed programs like Social
Security and Medicare, and even the once-shunned notion of compromise.
Welcome to “Extreme Makeover: Mourdock Edition.”
Mourdock’s awkward stagger to the center may be a necessary move if the
Republicans are to hold a seat that had been a safe bet since Lugar first
won it in 1976. The outcome will help determine whether the GOP manages to
win control of the Senate, where Democrats now have a narrow four-seat
Advertising spending from both sides has topped $6 million so far and
promises to explode in the final weeks. The candidates and outside groups
have already surpassed the $5.6 million spent in Indiana’s 2010 Senate
The tea party has won Senate seats in South Carolina, Utah, Kentucky and
Florida, but only one so far — in Wisconsin — in the more politically
diverse Midwest. Mourdock and Texas Republican Ted Cruz represent the
ultraconservative movement’s best chance for increasing its clout in this
Rather than rally true believers, Mourdock is working now to tie himself
closely to the state’s popular governor, Mitch Daniels, who is a
conventional business-executive Republican rather than a party insurgent,
while tying Donnelly to Obama, who is expected to lose Indiana in November.
But the image change is a stretch for the 60-year-old former coal company
executive, known for his fascination with motorcycles and race cars and for
his sarcastic criticism of Republicans he considers not conservative enough.
Mourdock, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress three times before becoming
state treasurer, won tea party acclaim for an outspoken role in the fight
against the auto bailout, for his criticism of Republicans who voted for
Obama’s Supreme Court appointments and for calling Lugar’s relationship with
Obama a “bromance.” While reliably conservative, Lugar sought common ground
with Democrats on foreign policy issues, a stance Mourdock exploited in the
Mourdock now argues he was never just a “tea partyer,” but rather a regular
Republican with conservative values.
“I’ve had a traditional base of Republicans out there,” Mourdock insisted in
an interview. “Are we going to have all those Lugar Republicans coming over?
Some have been slower to join us. But, you know, we’re getting there.”
Indiana’s shift to the right in recent years would seem to benefit Mourdock.
The state has defunded Planned Parenthood, approved a right-to-work law that
bars employers from requiring union membership and created one of the
nation’s broadest school voucher programs.
But Indiana voters have a penchant for split tickets and many are more
accustomed to the buttoned-down Midwestern style of Republicanism evinced by
the reserved Lugar, the former mayor of Indianapolis, and Daniels, a former
corporate executive, than that of the brash Mourdock.
Polls indicate many voters were offended by Mourdock’s slashing attacks on
Lugar, even those who thought it was time for the 80-year-old senator to
retire. In a statement, Lugar fed those doubts by saying Mourdock’s
hard-line approach is “not conducive to problem solving” and would be a
ticket to failure as a lawmaker.
When the general election campaign revved up last month, a new Mourdock
emerged with a milder message, bonding himself to Daniels and to well-known
Republican surrogates such as Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman and Oklahoma Sen. Tom
The transformation has left some Republicans shaking their heads.
“The night of the election he was singing the tea party’s praises — ‘I
couldn’t have gotten elected without the tea party!’ — and then the clock
turned midnight and he’s a mainstream Republican,” said Mike Murphy, an
Indiana Republican strategist and former state representative.
Lugar supporter Anne Emison Wishard said Mourdock’s change seems mostly
“I smell panic,” said Wishard.
But Joe McKinney, a 59-year-old education professor at Ball State University
who voted for Lugar, said the mainstream endorsements have made a favorable
impression. They are “more moderate Republicans who seem interested in the
issues I’m interested in,” he said.
Donnelly says Mourdock’s recent appearance at a tea party event in Texas
with commentator Glenn Beck showed his true stripes and undercut his
“ability to come back and talk to Hoosiers in the middle.” Several prominent
Lugar supporters have raised money or hosted meetings for Donnelly.
But Monica Boyer, co-founder of the tea party umbrella group Hoosiers for a
Conservative Senate, said Mourdock’s different messages don’t worry her.
As for Donnelly, she said, “He could campaign with Mother Teresa and he
would still have ‘Obamacare’ stamped on his forehead."