Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-2nd, is trying to buck two trends in his run for a U.S. Senate seat.
No Democrat outside the Bayh family has won an Indiana Senate seat since 1970. And only one sitting Hoosier congressman has been elected to the Senate in the past century.
Donnelly Tries to Pull a Quayle was the headline on a May 2011 report by the non-partisan Smart Politics, a website operated by the University of Minnesota. The report came a day after Donnelly announced he would seek the seat held since 1977 by Republican Sen. Richard Lugar.
Smart Politics research associate Eric Ostermeier pointed out at the time that Dan Quayle of Huntington has been the only Indiana congressman elected to the Senate since the advent of popular-vote elections in 1914.
When Quayle was elected vice president in 1988, Republicans appointed Rep. Dan Coats of Fort Wayne to the vacant Senate seat.
Six other House members have lost their bids for a Senate seat, most recently Democrat Brad Ellsworth in 2010. Coats won that election after a 12-year absence from the Senate.
Compared with other states, Indiana is definitely on the low side in terms of the number who have won as well as the percentage who have attempted, Ostermeier said in an interview last week.
For example, Michigan and Missouri have each elected five congressman to the Senate since 1914, he said.
What makes Indiana different?
Part of it is an anomaly just because you had Richard Lugar taking up one of those seats. So you really had only one seat open every six years, said Michael Wolf, a political scientist at IPFW.
Lugar’s popularity meant a limited potential for somebody to be competitive, Wolf said.
Over the past 36 years, Indiana has had five senators. In the same time, Colorado has had 10 and Minnesota 12 (although Hawaii has had just three).
Lugar lost the May Republican primary election to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. The absence of a veteran incumbent in theory gives Donnelly a better chance of joining Quayle in the House-to-Senate jump.
Geography might be a factor in keeping Indiana congressmen out of the Senate. House members from the far southern or northern reaches of the state – Ellsworth is from Evansville, and Donnelly is from the South Bend area – typically aren’t well known in other parts of Indiana.
Indiana obviously is not a geographically or culturally monolithic state, Ostermeier said.
Another reason House members might have trouble getting elected to the Senate is they have voting records that foes and voters can pick apart, Wolf said.
It makes it difficult to explain complicated votes that happen, he said.
Wolf mentioned what was considered a gaffe in the 2004 presidential campaign by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. Kerry said about providing additional funding for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.
In a similar vein, Mourdock has taken Donnelly to task for having supported the federal health care law while opposing one of its provisions, a 2.3 percent tax on medical device sales.
Wolf said federal lawmakers increasingly are voting on broad legislation containing many elements – including what are called omnibus bills – rather than on bills with a narrow focus.
Legislators, have to vote for something they mostly agree with, Wolf said, and in the process go along with individual provisions they dislike.
Before passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, senators were elected by state legislatures, and two House members from Indiana went to the Senate, in 1838 and 1904, Smart Politics reported. According to media reports this summer, at least five Republican congressmen or candidates who champion states’ rights, Mourdock among them, have made comments in favor of the original method of choosing senators.
If Donnelly defeats Mourdock on Nov. 6 – a recent independent poll indicates the two are running even – he will become the first Indiana Democrat not named Bayh to be elected to the Senate since Vance Hartke won his third term in 1970. Hartke lost to Lugar six years later.
Birch Bayh served three terms in the 1960s and ’70s, losing to Quayle in 1980, and son Evan Bayh captured Senate elections in 1998 and 2004 but did not seek re-election in 2010.
Indiana is a leaning-Republican state, so it’s extremely difficult for Democrats to be elected statewide, said Ray Scheele, a political scientist at Ball State University.
What Donnelly has to exploit, and he’s certainly trying to, at least in his TV ads, is a potential split in the Republican Party because of the vicious primary that nominated Mourdock, Scheele said.
Donnelly has portrayed himself as an Evan Bayh-like moderate – they have campaigned together – while attempting to portray Mourdock as an uncompromising conservative extremist. Mourdock has in turn pegged Donnelly as a liberal rubberstamp for President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Scheele recalled that Republican congressional candidates did the same thing in the 1980s by lumping Indiana Democrats in with House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass. But four Democratic incumbents held their seats throughout the decade, and two more Democrats were elected by the time O’Neill retired in 1987.
Tip O’Neill was never on the ballot in those districts, and it is the same with Nancy Pelosi, Scheele said. I’ll bet Nancy Pelosi’s name recognition isn’t very high in Indiana.
I’m not so sure that Mourdock is picking the right bogeyman, or bogeywoman in this case, to label with Donnelly, he said.
Scheele also thinks Obama will fare better in Indiana’s election than recent polling suggests, drawing more votes Donnelly’s way.
Donnelly was elected to the House in 2006, unseating Republican Chris Chocola in a rematch of their 2004 race. Chocola now leads the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, whose political action committees have spent $2.48 million in an effort to get Mourdock elected, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Donnelly barely defeated Republican Jackie Walorski in the 2010 congressional election. State legislators have since redrawn the 2nd District to make it more Republican, and Walorski is again the GOP candidate.
Wolf said Donnelly certainly had an incentive to jump in (the Senate race) before he knew whether or not Lugar would lose. He was going to have to walk the plank anyway.
When Donnelly announced he would run for the Senate, few people were confident Mourdock could knock off Lugar a year later, creating an open seat.
That’s why they say politics is all a matter of timing and good luck, Scheele said.
The fact that he clobbered Lugar by 21 percentage points in the primary demonstrates that Mourdock’s timing is pretty good, too. But six years ago, Democrats did not even field a candidate against Lugar. Now, if the polls are correct, Donnelly appears to have a decent chance to pull a Quayle.
Everything has broken his way, Scheele said.