The U.S. Senate race in Indiana already is shaping up to be a potential barn-burner. Sen. Richard Lugar (R), who will be 80 at the time of the next election, has announced his intention to run again and it appears he will be a 2012 Republican primary Tea Party target. Already state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) is launching an official challenge to the six-term senator and others could join the fray, as well. Though Mourdock will be attacking Lugar from the right, he is not necessarily a bona-fide Tea Party candidate.
Lugar has positioned himself as center-right for quite some time, and many of his votes and public statements on both fiscal and foreign policy issues has engendered opposition from activists with a strict conservative ideological bent. He is publicly defiant in response to the Tea Party possibly fielding a candidate against him, meaning the eventual primary battle will include some raucous political fireworks.
Attracting more than one opponent, however, could help the senator survive. Indiana has no run-off law, so scoring only a plurality of votes wins a nomination for both parties. A crowded field could produce a result like we saw in the Hoosier State’s 5th congressional district last year when Rep. Dan Burton (R) was re-nominated even though 70.3% of voters chose another candidate. If Lugar’s personal approval numbers drop, a low turnout primary could cause him a problem similar to what several other Republican senators faced in 2010. Lugar’s vulnerability increases if he has just one credible primary opponent.
With this backdrop, the Democrats have to consider their own general election moves. If Lugar falls in the primary, will Indiana then look something like Nevada and Colorado did last year when Republicans nominated candidates who were too weak to defeat a Democrat? Such thoughts must be crossing Rep. Joe Donnelly’s (D-IN-2) mind. He confirmed on Friday that he is mulling a run for the Senate. Usually voting the party line, but moving to the center often enough to protect himself politically at home, Donnelly might be a Democratic candidate who could win an Indiana general election despite the conservative voting patterns traditionally demonstrated in the state.
But the three-term Congressman has other considerations beyond his ability to defeat Sen. Lugar in making a decision to run statewide. His 2nd district is marginal and typically bounces back and forth between the parties in terms of congressional preference. Donnelly unseated incumbent GOP Rep. Chris Chocola in 2006, beating him by a considerable 54-46% margin. He was easily re-elected in 2008, a Democratic sweep year, 67-30%. But, when the Republicans rebounded last November, Donnelly’s victory percentage dropped well below 50%, and he avoided defeat by just one percentage point. He slipped past state Rep. Jackie Walorski (R) by a scant 48-47% count. So, winning again in what could be another Republican year, at least in Indiana, might not be a given.
Rep. Donnelly’s bigger consideration with regard to his future political plans is redistricting, however. With the Republicans in complete control of the process, the congressman has to weigh whether his opponents will concede him a safe district or attempt to change the map in order to give the next GOP congressional nominee a better chance at victory. It might seem like an obvious answer to respond that the Republicans will try to grab the 2nd district for themselves, but such might not be the case. Over-reaching, as we saw in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio during 2001 redistricting, can result in an entire map collapsing when a bad political year strikes for the majority party. Republicans will have to decide between protecting a 6R-3D map for the decade or trying to reach for a seventh seat, even if some of their current districts become weaker as a result.
Indiana is certainly a place to watch, as action here will soon be forthcoming. Right now, Republicans are the decided favorites to hold the Senate seat, but if Donnelly enters the statewide contest much uncertainty will come to the entire Hoosier State political picture.
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