Republican state Treasurer Richard Mourdock entered the general election with momentum from his primary win over Sen. Richard Lugar, emboldening tea party activists hoping to land one of their biggest prizes of the campaign cycle. But moderate Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly, who had held his own in deeply red Indiana as he courted "Lugar Republicans" leery of Mourdock's views, got an unexpected bounce after Mourdock shared his views on abortion during a televised debate Oct. 23.
The race could help determine control of the U.S. Senate, where Republicans need three or four seats to claim control. But it also could represent a coup for Indiana Democrats, who have been waiting decades for a shot at the seat Lugar first won in 1976.
Even a year ago, Lugar seemed a safe bet to win a seventh term, despite widespread conservative anger with the veteran statesman's votes on contentious legislation and for President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominees. But questions about Lugar's residency combined with a flood of outside spending by groups such as the anti-tax Club for Growth carried Mourdock to a 20-point victory in the May primary.
Democrats pounced on the opportunity as Mourdock made a series of quick missteps that alarmed more moderate Republicans. In a series of interviews the day after his primary victory, Mourdock said compromise should consist of Democrats bowing to Republican demands and stood by tea party views popular with the base of conservative voters, but not the general populace.
"To me the highlight of politics, frankly, is to inflict my opinion on someone else," he told MSNBC the day after the primary.
Democrats spent millions flooding the airwaves with those comments and other Mourdock statements in a bid to attract disillusioned Lugar supporters.
Mourdock later tried to tack back toward the middle with declarations that he could work across the aisle and warned that Donnelly would be a rubber stamp for Obama's policies. National Republicans sent staff and Republican senators, including National Republican Senate Committee Chairman John Cornyn, to campaign for Mourdock.
Mourdock set off a frantic scramble for damage control after the Oct. 23 debate in which he explained his opposition to abortion except in cases in which the mother's life is in jeopardy, "even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape." Republicans, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney, initially distanced themselves from Mourdock but later walked their criticism back, with many saying they didn't agree with his statement but supported Mourdock's candidacy.
Democrats, who worked to paint Mourdock as an uncompromising tea partyer and define Donnelly as a moderate Democrat, responded by spending $1.1 million on an ad saying even Romney and Indiana U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, who is running for governor, "believe Mourdock goes too far." The anti-tax Club for Growth, a strong proponent of the Republican in his primary win over Lugar, responded with an ad buy of its own, raising its state spending to more than $3.5 million.
The comment could be the defining moment of the race. A Howey/DePauw University Battleground poll taken Oct. 28-30 showed Donnelly breaking open a double-digit lead over Mourdock.
The Senate battle is the most expensive the state ever has seen, topping $25 million spent on air by outside groups and the campaigns.