INDIANAPOLIS – The conventional wisdom was that Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-2nd, ran for the U.S. Senate because he did not think he could win re-election to his House seat.
If that’s the case, Donnelly’s gamble paid off handsomely Tuesday. He defeated Republican state Treasurer Richard Mourdock to replace Republican Richard Lugar, the incumbent senator for the past 36 years.
With some counties still counting ballots, Donnelly was receiving about 49 percent of the vote, Mourdock 45 percent and Libertarian Andrew Horning 6 percent.
Voters, gave us a chance, and what we said was we think the most important thing is Hoosier common sense going to Washington, D.C., Donnelly told cheering Democrats in a hotel ballroom in downtown Indianapolis.
He thanked Mourdock and Horning for a spirited campaign.
A Mourdock victory was regarded as almost mandatory for Republicans to overcome a four-seat deficit and grab control of the Senate from Democrats.
Mourdock told Republicans at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis: Tonight my concern for the nation grows greater. That’s not meant as a slap to Mr. Donnelly.
He said Congress wants to kick the can down the road, weaken us – a reference to the growing federal budget deficit and national debt that Mourdock has condemned.
Mourdock no doubt was hurt by his comment during an Oct. 23 debate that pregnancy resulting from rape is something that God intended to happen. The remark drew national media attention, and he was running 11 points behind Donnelly in an independent poll conducted a week before the election.
Mourdock liked to say that bipartisanship should consist of Democrats agreeing with conservative Republicans, something that Donnelly talked about at every opportunity.
Former Sen. Evan Bayh, who joined Donnelly for a series of public appearances around the state this week, told the ballroom crowd that Donnelly’s victory was, a vote for progress over partisanship, a vote for practical solutions rather than rigid ideology.
Donnelly also had hammered away at Mourdock for his 2009 lawsuit that tried to stop the sale of bankrupt Chrysler. Mourdock argued that terms of the deal were unfavorable to state employee pension funds that had invested in Chrysler bonds.
Voters in Howard County, where Chrysler manufactures transmissions, gave Donnelly about a 5-point advantage.
Election results showed Lugar supporters were cool to the candidate who trounced the six-term incumbent in the May Republican primary election. Lugar never formally endorsed Mourdock after their contest.
Mourdock beat Lugar by 21 percentage points on the strength of tea party support. He ran a more conventional campaign in the fall, enlisting the support of several Republican senators, including Indiana’s Dan Coats, Ohio’s Rob Portman, Arizona’s John McCain, Texas’ John Cornyn and Florida’s Marco Rubio.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney appeared with Mourdock at an Evansville campaign event and endorsed Mourdock in a TV ad. But Romney and other top Republicans tried to distance themselves from Mourdock after his debate remark about pregnancy, rape and God.
Mourdock fared worse in northeast Indiana, a Republican hotbed, than he did in the primary. In May, he received at least 67 percent of the vote in all the region’s counties. But on Tuesday, he was attracting less than 60 percent across the area, only 49 percent of the vote in Wells County. He was trailing Romney’s totals by 10 percentage points across the region.
Between them, Mourdock and Donnelly raised about $12 million, with outside interest groups spending more than $21 million at last count, most of it on TV ads attacking one candidate or the other.
Donnelly entered the race in May 2011 when the Indiana General Assembly drew new, 10-year congressional districts that moved more Republicans into the 2nd District, which Donnelly narrowly won in 2010. He was first elected to the House in 2006, defeating Republican incumbent Chris Chocola.
Chocola went on the head up the conservative Club for Growth, which aggressively campaigned against Lugar in the primary and Donnelly in the general election.
Donnelly became the first House member from Indiana elected to the Senate since Dan Quayle of Huntington in 1980.
Niki Kelly of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.