Three-term Indiana Democrat Rep. Joe Donnelly voted for Obamacare. He voted for Obama’s waste-filled $787 billion stimulus package. He is a down-the-line supporter of card check, the measure that would allow union organizers to bypass secret ballot elections.
To those who have followed his political career that is no surprise: The Center for Responsive Politics documents Donnelly has received better than $1.1 million in labor contributions.
So in his race for the U.S. Senate against conservative Indiana Republican treasurer Richard Mourdock, how can Donnelly present himself as he does in his latest television ads as “the Hoosier common sense middle ground” between “the far left and the Tea Party right”?
Critics say, the same way he explains his position on House speaker Nancy Pelosi. After launching his campaign for the Senate, Donnelly declared that in 2011 he voted against Pelosi for speaker. But in 2007 and 2009 he acknowledged he voted for Pelosi. He voted against Pelosi after he voted for her.
Donnelly supported the Obama administration's repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” after years of opposing repeal. He opposed the Bush surge in Iraq, but he was for the Obama surge in Afghanistan.
Donnelly gets consistently low scores from conservative voting index ratings. He gets Ds and Fs from the National Taxpayers Union. He scores a lifetime 14 percent from Citizens Against Government Waste. Meanwhile, he enjoys a lifetime 84 percent rating from the AFL-CIO.
Polls show Obama is about to be crushed in Indiana, and Donnelly has proven to be a consistent supporter of Obama policies. He has compared Obama’s presidential leadership with that of John F. Kennedy, declaring Obama “is the president we need at this moment in history.”
How, then, does Donnelly remain competitive in his race against Mourdock, a geologist by education who went on to be a successful businessman and popular figure in Indiana GOP circles? (When he ran for reelection for treasurer in 2010, he got more votes than Senator Dan Coats.)
The answer lies in what many saw as Mourdock’s finest hour—his crushing 22-point defeat of six-term senator Richard Lugar in the May Republican primary.
Focus groups conducted by the Mourdock campaign show residual resentment of Mourdock among former Lugar supporters. But when told of Donnelly’s pro-Obama voting record—and that he will be voting for Harry Reid as the Senate’s leader—most of these voters say they will go Mourdock.
It is ironic that it was Lugar’s relationship with Barack Obama that actually led to his political vulnerability. They were friends in the Senate, and Obama used that relationship in campaign advertising in Indiana, helping him to carry the state, narrowly, in 2008.
President Obama, however, quickly became stunningly unpopular in Indiana, and Lugar’s ties to the president helped lead to his defeat. There are elements in play that may lead to the same fate for Donnelly.
In early months the Mourdock campaign failed to define the South Bend congressman’s record. In polls, Donnelly’s negatives have remained surprisingly low, considering his links to Obama administration policies. Those close to Mourdock say that is about to change.
In recent days significant advertising money is flowing into Indiana from outside groups like Crossroads, the super PAC co-founded by Karl Rove. Donnelly’s consistent ties to Obama programs will soon be much better known in the land of the Hoosiers.
Meanwhile, Lugar gave Mourdock a gracious introduction to a gathering of Republican senators in Washington, even if he continues to refuse to campaign with him. Once Donnelly’s links to Obama’s most unpopular programs are better known to old-line Lugar supporters, can defeat for Donnelly be far behind?
It will be a fitting conclusion if President Obama actually accounts for Mourdock’s second big victory in 2012.
Kenneth Y. Tomlinson is a former editor in chief of Reader’s Digest.