Indiana embraces GOP -- up to a point

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana continued its shift to the right Tuesday as voters supported Republican candidates for president and governor, but also sent a clear signal on where its embrace of conservatism ends.

While GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney handily won the state and Republican Mike Pence kept the governor's office in Republican hands, tea party-backed Senate candidate Richard Mourdock was defeated after a campaign that focused on his harder line views.

The vote produced an outcome that had once seemed highly unlikely -- a Democratic victory in a Republican stronghold -- and underscored the challenge for a state GOP trying to balance a mainstream tradition with a restive tea party movement.

Mourdock's campaign was shaken by a series of gaffes capped by his comment that pregnancy resulting from rape is "something God intended." The race became a referendum on which candidate could best represent the interests of moderates and mainstream Republicans -- Mourdock or a Democrat.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly worked to cloak himself in the mantle of six-term Sen. Richard Lugar, who was beaten by Mourdock in the GOP primary. Mourdock recruited a series of veteran Republican officeholders, including Arizona John McCain, to vouch for him as someone who would fit in the mainstream.

But some voters, especially those who had long supported Lugar, were skeptical of the tea party overtones.

"I sat in there quite a while trying to figure out which way I was going to go," said Janet Sutton, a Lugar supporter from Indianapolis who reluctantly picked Donnelly, even though she wanted Republicans to control the Senate. "I did not like some of the issues Mourdock had."

Mourdock's defeat of Lugar in the primary, in which he derided the veteran senator as old and out of touch, damaged his standing with some moderates he needed in the general election. But Republican campaign officials believed Mourdock's popularity was rising with a message focused on blasting the federal health care overhaul and federal spending.

His abortion comment at a debate in October, along with earlier remarks in which he scoffed at the idea of working with Democrats, proved too much of an obstacle.

Mike Murphy, a former Republican state lawmaker and veteran political operative, cautioned that Mourdock's campaign mistakes made it difficult to draw broad conclusions about tea party candidates in the Midwest.

"It was the biggest political meltdown since Joel Deckard in 1982," he said. Deckard lost his congressional race after driving his car into a tree shortly before the election.

Donnelly and Democratic outside groups spent roughly $12 million on advertising to push the message that Mourdock was too radical for sensible Indiana. Republican groups spent about $14 million in an attempt to counter the assault.

Exit polling of Indiana voters showed Donnelly winning roughly a quarter of Lugar's supporters. Poll results also showed that even though the economy was a top issue for six out of 10 voters, and helped carry other Republicans, the issue did not lift Mourdock.

In their remarks Tuesday night, Donnelly promised to carry on Lugar's tradition in Washington. "I'm not going there as one party's senator or the other party's senator, I'm going there as your senator."

In conceding defeat, Mourdock said he was attacked because of his religious faith. "Though I was attacked for it as well, make no mistake, I stand that all life is precious in the eyes of God," he said.

Indiana's preference for mainstream conservatism was also underscored by Pence's narrow victory. Pence had a healthy lead in the polls through much of the campaign, presenting himself as a hard-working, mainstream Republican in the mold of outgoing Gov. Mitch Daniels. But Pence's numbers dropped as Democratic opponent John Gregg criticized him for crusading for rightwing social causes as a congressman and as Mourdock's comments made abortion an issue in the race.

Pence declined repeatedly to answer questions about Mourdock's comments, striving to keep the subject on the economy.

In the presidential race, the GOP succeeded in its determination to deliver Indiana for Romney, after President Barack Obama had surprisingly carried the state in 2008.

"More than anything, it's reverting back to form as strongly Republican and strongly conservative," said Christine Matthews, a veteran Indiana Republican pollster.

Democrats have had their moments, most notably in 2006 when disappointment with former President George W. Bush helped Democrats flip three of Indiana's nine congressional seats.

But Daniels' two terms as governor helped solidify the GOP's position.

"Hoosier voters are discerning and they will spit their ticket," Matthews said.

Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

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