Matthew Tully for the Indianapolis Star: Donnelly offers a simple message worth hearing

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By Matthew Tully

July 8, 2012


It's easy to be depressed about politics these days.

Super PACs shape campaigns from the shadows, and cable news entertainers influence politics from the edge of sanity. Big issues go unaddressed because of partisan gridlock; yet, somehow, politicians such as Indiana's U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock emerge with promises to bring even more gridlock and partisanship to Capitol Hill.

Mourdock bluntly said recently: "We need less bipartisanship in Congress." Among many other such statements, there was this one: "To me, the highlight of politics, frankly, is to inflict my opinion on someone else."

I could go on; Mourdock is the Energizer Bunny of juvenile political ideas. So it's been nice to see that his divisive brand of politics has caused him trouble recently and helped make Indiana's Senate race competitive.

Gone are the pre-primary days when the Republican state treasurer had only to appeal to a small slice of the voter pool -- a slice that loved his inflammatory rhetoric. The general election season has arrived, and Mourdock's opposition to working with anyone who doesn't share his far-right worldview is a tougher sell among the 91 percent of Hoosier adults who either didn't vote in the Republican primary or didn't vote for him in that primary. 

Mourdock's fortunes are not helped by the fact that his Democratic opponent is a workmanlike Blue Dog moderate. Joe Donnelly, a former small-business owner and current third-term U.S. House member from Northern Indiana, delivers a message built around two core ideas: create more jobs and turn Washington, D.C. into less of a toxic swamp.

"This is about making Hoosier lives better and our country stronger," Donnelly told me over coffee at the City Cafe Downtown last week. "(Mourdock) is going there as a partisan warrior. I'm going there as the hired help from Indiana to make our state stronger. 

So far, Mourdock has been Donnelly's most valuable political asset, routinely saying things that his opponents couldn't make up. For example, he has said that if the Senate is not in Republican hands next year, his main goal as a taxpayer-salaried senator would be to travel the country campaigning to get more Republicans elected. He believes compromise can be achieved only if Democrats and moderate Republicans cave on every issue and embrace his positions. He has offered a laughable proposal to eliminate several federal agencies and departments without offering a sensible plan to replace the services they provide.

"What will happen if you act that way is people will ignore you," Donnelly said. "How can you be a serious part of any discussion if you've said from the beginning that the only plan you'll be a part of is your plan?"

As we chatted, Donnelly talked about working with Republican U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita to help secure Indiana's share of funding in a recently passed transportation bill, and with Republican U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman on an effort to save an air base in Northern Indiana. He said he voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt last month, amid Democratic protests, because he had voted the same way against officials in the Bush administration.

In a state that leans to the right, those pulling for Donnelly point to his opposition to abortion, his support of gun rights and his call for less spending.

That record could help sell his candidacy to independents and moderate Republicans. But what about Democrats? To that question, he said he would support President Obama "when he's right" but added that the problems facing the country aren't about partisan labels.

"Voters want people to go do their jobs, to stop fighting and start acting like adults," said Donnelly, who supported Obama's health-care legislation. "We are at a moment in history where this country is going to take off like a rocket or just muddle along."

While Mourdock has taken the word compromise out of his dictionary, Donnelly offers a simple message worth hearing if you're tired of all the political dysfunction.

"I'll walk from Lake Michigan to the Ohio River to meet with anyone of any party if it would result in 10 more jobs for 10 more Hoosier families," he said. "That's what this election is about."

Donnelly would be an appealing candidate in almost any election. Against a partisan warrior such as Mourdock, his appeal is even more apparent.


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