Monday, November 05, 2012

Mourdock's Missed Opportunity

As I write the day before the election, I fully anticipate that Richard Mourdock will lose his Senate race to U.S. Rep. Donnelly and quite possibly cost Republicans control of the Senate. I don't come to that conclusion lightly, particularly as someone who strongly supports Mourdock and plans to vote for him. I've followed politics long enough though to read the handwriting on the wall.

Despite what most pundits claimed after Mourdock upset Sen. Richard Lugar in a landslide primary victory in this year's May Republican primary, I always thought this race was Mourdock's to win or lose. His upset win over Sen. Lugar was historic and shook the political landscape across the country. Unlike his primary election, money flowed in abundance to his campaign to ensure that he would have all the money necessary to run a credible campaign against a well-funded Democratic opponent. The pundits kept saying that Mourdock wouldn't be able to win over the votes of the so-called Lugar Republicans to win in November. This never made sense to me because Mourdock is no further to the right than Indiana's other senator, Dan Coats, who has won three statewide races, one as recently as 2010. And he's certainly no more conservative than Mike Pence, who polls have consistently showed leading his Democratic opponent John Gregg by healthy margins.

In my view, Mourdock's challenge after winning the primary was to re-introduce himself to Indiana's voters. The Lugar campaign had much more money to spend in the May primary, and it trashed his character thoroughly with a barrage of negative television, radio and direct mail pieces. The vast majority of Republican voters were turned off by the negative attacks, but Mourdock had a real challenge to rehabilitate himself with independent and conservative Democrats in this state who have no problem crossing over and voting for Republican candidates in general elections. Unfortunately, that was a challenge Mourdock's campaign never took up. Mike Pence or his wife, for example, have effectively spoken directly to voters in most of his ads to give you some sense of what kind of person he is.

The Mourdock message, as far as I can tell, has been to simply tie Donnelly to Obama's hip, particularly with respect to his vote in support of Obamacare. In virtually every ad I've seen run by the Mourdock campaign, there is some other voice speaking Mourdock's message. I don't recall any memorable ads where he looked into the camera and spoke directly to the voters to give them some sense of what kind of person he is. In fact, I can't remember watching a single Mourdock ad this campaign season that I would describe as either memorable or effective, including the avalanche of SuperPac ads paid for by outside interests.

Donnelly, by comparison, has run a series of ads where he tells a little bit about himself with a man heckling him in the background with the same message, "Hey Donnelly, it's my way or the highway." Unlike many ads I've watched this year, the Donnelly ads stick in your mind and leave an impression--an impression that has largely gone unanswered by the Mourdock campaign. Donnelly comes across as this affable, straight-talking guy, while Mourdock appears as some marginalized nut case who is not capable of getting anything done. That's an unfair perception, particularly when you look at his record working with Democrats as a Vanderburgh Co. commissioner and as State Treasurer. Nonetheless, Mourdock has failed to disabuse voters of that notion by speaking directly to them with the millions of dollars he's spent on his media campaign.

Some people may say that Mourdock wouldn't come across as well as Donnelly if he spoke directly to voters. I'm not buying that. I still recall the campaign Dan Coats ran against Joe Hogsett for the Senate in 1992. Many Republicans feared that the more photogenic Hogsett, coming off his upset win for Secretary of State over Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut, would overwhelm Coats. Coats immediately put his money advantage to use speaking to voters directly about himself and defining his opponent at the same time. He portrayed Hogsett as this single guy, who had no family and had nothing better to do than be a full-time professional politician. Never mind the fact that Coats had worked in Washington his entire adult life, the image that Coats portrayed of his opponent stuck and helped him handily defeat the younger, more attractive Hogsett in the general election. That image Coats painted of Hogsett stuck, and it hurt him in his subsequent losing campaigns for Congress and Attorney General.

If Mourdock had done a good job at messaging himself early on, I think he could have survived his poorly-chosen words about the rare circumstance of a woman becoming pregnant as a consequence of being raped during his recent debate with his opponents. The reality is that there isn't a dime's worth of difference between Mourdock's and Donnelly's positions on abortion, but that won't matter. As it is, the only image most casual voters have to inform themselves of Mourdock is this man who said he likes "to inflict his opinion on others" and that a pregnancy resulting from a rape is something that "God intended." That's all that's in their heads, and it's not a winning message--not by a long shot. Mourdock didn't just fail to deliver an effective message to the so-called Lugar voters. He failed to deliver an effective message to any voters.

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