Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock’s Senate campaign self-destructed with his incendiary comment on rape and abortion. But in the GOP-leaning state, there were other reasons that Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly appealed to independent voters: a moderate voting record and unflashy style that helped reassure Hoosiers that he could be a viable successor to Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, also a moderate.
Donnelly was born in Massapequa, N.Y., and grew up on Long Island’s South Shore. He attended the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., earning an undergraduate degree in government and then a law degree. He practiced law in the area until 1996, when he opened Marking Solutions, a printing and rubber stamp company. Donnelly served on the state election board in 1988 and 1989, but his early bids for public office were disappointing, to say the least. He ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for state attorney general in 1988, failed in a bid for the state Senate in 1990, and then lost his first attempt at a seat in Congress in 2004. However, he came close in the latter contest, holding Republican Rep. Chris Chocola to 54 percent to his 45 percent.
The year 2006 was much more difficult for Republicans such as Chocola nationally, and Donnelly made President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq war an issue. Although Chocola again outspent him 2-to-1, it seemed it was finally Donnelly’s year to win. He beat his rival, 54 percent to 46 percent.
“In an era of screamers and cable-TV rock stars filling congressional seats, Donnelly has spent his time on Capitol Hill calmly and quietly working on the issues of the day,” the Indianapolis Star observed. An opponent of abortion rights, Donnelly urged Democratic leaders to advance a moderate agenda in Congress. He also joined the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition.
He went his own way on some issues, and was among 12 Democrats to vote against the budget in 2007. He also opposed the 2009 bill seeking to create a cap-and-trade system for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. He backed the House version of the health care overhaul, but was among the antiabortion Democrats who withheld their support of the final version until President Obama agreed to issue an executive order reaffirming the government’s ban on funding abortion-related services. Donnelly also refused to support liberal Nancy Pelosi of California for Democratic leader in 2011.
Donnelly has focused on veterans’ issues, working with Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., to expedite veterans’ claims, and he got a bill through the House in 2010 to speed up processing veterans’ benefits. On the Financial Services Committee, he backed the fall 2008 bailouts for the financial firms and automobile companies. On the housing bill in 2007, he added a provision to raise loan limits for manufactured housing, which has a strong presence in Indiana. In 2009, he got the House to include recreational vehicles, many of which are made in his district, in an advanced vehicle technology research bill.
When Mourdock, the Indiana state treasurer and a favorite of the tea party, toppled iconic six-term Sen. Dick Lugar in the GOP primary, his supporters saw the general election largely as a formality. But Mourdock’s bid got off to a rough start. Within hours of winning the nomination, he made several appearances on cable and broadcast television shows suggesting that he doesn’t believe in compromise. He said on Fox News Channel, “I have a mind-set that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.” The remark allowed Donnelly and Democrats to paint him as an extremist.
Mourdock worked to tie Donnelly to President Obama, calling Donnelly “Obama Joe” in TV ads. But in October, he uttered what may be remembered—along with Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s comment about “legitimate rape”—as the most explosive remark of the 2012 election. Asked about abortion in cases of rape, he said: “Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
A subsequent Democratic poll showed Donnelly with a 7 percentage-point lead over Mourdock and libertarian Andrew Horning. In endorsing Donnelly, the Star said, “It was clear even before the latest controversy that Donnelly was better prepared than his Republican rival to represent the state and the nation effectively in the Senate.”