By MAUREEN HAYDEN
Democrat Joe Donnelly and Republican Richard Mourdock spent the final hours of their fierce race for a U.S. Senate seat touring the state telling voters almost the same thing: A message of “send me to Washington” if you want to break the partisan gridlock.
They’re echoing that message with similar words as well: Send the other guy and things will only get worse.
On Monday morning, both candidates kicked off the final leg of the race, meeting with supporters and urging voters to get to the polls Tuesday. Each had a party stalwart with them: Mourdock had Republican Sen. Dan Coats at his side, while Donnelly had former Sen. Evan Bayh, the last Democrat to represent Indiana in the Senate.
“I don’t think Hoosiers could have a more clear choice than they have in this race,” Mourdock told reporters at the First Watch Café in Indianapolis, where he greeted breakfast diners before starting a fly-around of the state. “It’s either get away from the politics of [President Barack] Obama that Joe Donnelly has supported or let’s have some more gridlock.”
Within an hour, just up the road in a Democrat campaign field office in the affluent Indianapolis suburb of Fishers, Donnelly and Bayh were deploying the same kind of language to make the argument for Donnelly.
Describing the partisan-paralyzed Congress as “broken,” Bayh said: “The only way to improve it is to send people who work together.” He added: “If we had more Joe Donnellys in the Senate it wouldn’t be as broken as it is.”
Another common theme that emerged in their comments: It’s the other side to blame for making the race the most expensive Senate contest in Indiana history. More than $20 million has been spent so far; nearly half of the money from outside groups has been spent the last three weeks.
Mourdock said he knew the race would be costly when he saw Democrats pouring cash into the race, not long after he toppled six-term U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar in the May primary with strong Tea Party support.
“I thought all along this was going to be a very close race,” said Mourdock, disputing results of the independent Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll released Friday that showed Donnelly ahead by more than 10 points. The poll also showed Libertarian Andy Horning had picked up 6 percent of voter support.
Donnelly, meanwhile, referenced reports that showed more than $6 million in outside money has been spent on Mourdock’s behalf since mid-October. (In the same period, about $4.7 million in outside money has come in for Donnelly.)
“A lot of folks came in her trying to buy an Indiana Senate seat,” Donnelly said. “I think the great thing we’ve seen is that the people of Indiana have said: ‘This seat belongs to us.’”
Donnelly and Mourdock looked worn out early Monday, but both expressed gratitude for the long hours their campaign volunteers have put in. Both said their campaigns have been energized in recent days.
Fueling that energy in large part was the Howey/DePauw poll that showed Mourdock had apparently lost significant ground with independents and some people in his own party because of a statement he made during an October debate. In responding to a question about abortion, Mourdock said he was “pro-life” without any exceptions, including for rape, because pregnancy resulting from rape is “something God intended.”
Morgan Whitacre, 27, a Democrat field office staff member said after the Howey poll was released, “we were flooded with volunteers.” Mourdock’s staff said his campaign was bolstered as well by supporters who thought the media had taken Mourdock’s words out of context.
Donnelly said he was pleased with the poll numbers but wary of taking anything for granted. “I always run like I’m 10 points behind and 10 days out,” Donnelly said.
Back the First Watch Café, where Mourdock had started his Monday, restaurant manager Gary Bates said he was glad he had the opportunity to help out the Mourdock campaign.
But he also voiced an opinion that may cross party lines among voters who’ve witnessed an onslaught of television commercials from both the Donnelly and Mourdock camps.
“I’ll be glad,” Bates said, “not to have to watch any of the ads on TV anymore.”