Will The Tea Party Hand A Senate Seat To The Democrats?

Next Tuesday, Richard Lugar, the senior member of the Republican caucus in the Senate1, faces the voters in what has become a bitter primary fight with Tea Party-backed candidate Richard Mourdock. There appears to be good possibility that Lugar will lose the primary despite having the backing of Mitch Daniels and other senior Indiana Republicans. As Nate Silver notes today, although a Mourdock victory will make the Tea Party happy, it could result in Lugar’s seat going to a Democrat in November:

If Mr. Lugar loses, it should increase Democrats’ odds of picking up the Senate seat in November. Democrats have a fairly good candidate in Indiana in the form of United States Representative Joe Donnelly, who represents the Second Congressional District and who narrowly retained his seat in a very tough environment for Democrats nationally in 2010. The Second District, which includes South Bend and Michigan City, is slightly Republican-leaning relative to the country as a whole but slightly Democratic-leaning relative to the rest of Indiana.

Still, Indiana remains a red state, despite Barack Obama having narrowly carried it in 2008. Mr. Obama’s victory came in part because his campaign put a great deal of effort into winning the state, relying on volunteers and media exposure in the Chicago market, while John McCain’s campaign put almost none in.

Nor is Mr. Mourdock in the Christine O’Donnell category of candidates. As the state treasurer, he is roughly as well-credentialed as Mr. Donnelly.

Mr. Mourdock has some standard Tea Party lines in his platform, enough to be problematic in more urban parts of the state like Indianapolis and northeast Indiana. Still, he is not all that far outside of Indiana’s political mainstream — not obviously more or less so than Mr. Donnelly, who voted for Mr. Obama’s health care bill, although he has bucked his party on other issues like gun-ownership rights and cap-and-trade.

All of that points to a close race, and the lone poll featuring a Mourdock-Donnelly matchup showed the race to be an exact tie, although with both candidates lacking name recognition.

Silver goes on to note that Mourdock would likely have an edge against Donnelly only because Indiana is, at heart, a Republican state. Barack Obama won the state in 2008, the first time a Democrat had done so since 1964, but very few analysts seem to think he’ll repeat in the Hoosier State this year. At the same time, though, Donnelly is fairly more conservative than other Democrats, much like Evan Bayh who represented the state in the Senate for twelve years. As Silver goes on to note, a Democratic pickup in Indiana, or a close  race that requires the NRSC and other groups to spend significant money in the state, would seriously complicate Republican efforts to retake the Senate this year.

Of course, this may all be moot. While current momentum appears to be with Mourdock in the Republican primary, there hasn’t been any non-partisan poll released in the state since mid-March and that one had Lugar comfortably ahead. If Lugar does manage to pull off a primary win, it’s likely that the power of incumbency would send him to a victory in November.

1 Lugar entered the Senate the same day as Orrin Hatch but, because Indiana is higher in population than Utah, Lugar is considered the Senator with the most seniority. If Lugar is re-elected and the GOP regains the Senate, he would become Senate President Pro Tempore. Otherwise, Hatch would take that position in the event of a Republican takeover.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. al-Ameda says:

    Silver goes on to note that Mourdock would likely have an edge against Donnelly only because Indiana is, at heart, a Republican state. Barack Obama won the state in 2008, the first time a Democrat had done so since 1964, but very few analysts seem to think he’ll repeat in the Hoosier State this year.

    I’m with Silver on this one. Republican territory.

  2. I think you left out the word “another” in the title.

  3. @Timothy Watson:

    Say what you will but, as Silver notes, Mourdock is no O’Donnell or Angle.

  4. This doesn’t appear to be the case with some previous races where the tea party backed an unserious candidate that had no hope of ever winning, so I don’t see how this can be characterized as “handing” the Democrats a seat, even if they end up winning.

  5. Neil Hudelson says:

    I believe the poll you are referencing was conducted by Howey Politics and Depauw University (here).

    In that poll, Lugar was up by 5 points, but under the ‘magic’ 50% mark that would make me deem him automatically safe.

    More importantly, 21% were undecideds.

    Undecideds tend to break for the challenger. Depending on the research, the margin for which they break is between 2-1 on the conservative side and 4-1 on the other end of the spectrum.

    Even conservatively, if 21% of undecided voters go 2-1 for Mourdock, Lugar is toast.

    As another indicator, Mourdock is outraising Lugar (although Lugar has more cash on hand), and one of Lugar’s biggest pacs just announced they would no longer be running ads in the state.

    If the election were held today, I would say Lugar is toast.

    That said, a lot can change in a week. The election will be decided in the metropolitan areas, and Lugar has a better ground game in place.

  6. Tsar Nicholas says:

    How astonishingly ironic would it be if Mourdock wins this primary, but loses the Nov. general, and the GOP winds up exactly with 50 Senate seats (if Obama wins) or with 49 seats (if Romney wins)?

  7. KariQ says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    Actually the “under 50%” and “undecideds break for the challenger” rules have been proven false in recent years. Apparently, people are less willing to state a candidate preference than they used to, so that means an incumbent is less likely to reach the 50% support level, even if he or she is actually a pretty safe bet for reelection. This has also undermined the advantage that challengers used to have among undecided voters.

    I believe Silver looked at these theories, but I can’t recall for sure.

    In any case, it is my memory that the best thing to do in current elections is to go by the headline numbers, so a poll showing Lugar up by 5 means that he has a small but clear lead even if there is a high number of undecideds.

  8. Neil Hudelson says:


    The Howey/Depauw poll is set to release new numbers today (That was the independent poll). My sources tell me it will show Mourdock with a 48% to 38% lead over Lugar. Removing the ‘leans Mourdock/Leans Republican” it will be 45% Mourdock to 35% Lugar.