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Mourdock's Demeanor Masks Conservative Fervor

Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock speaks to supporters in Indianapolis on Tuesday after defeating Sen. Richard Lugar in the state's Republican primary.
AJ Mast
Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock speaks to supporters in Indianapolis on Tuesday after defeating Sen. Richard Lugar in the state's Republican primary.

Richard Mourdock is the first to admit he's lacking in the political flash-and-dash department.

"I never got hit with the charisma stick when I was lying there in the nursery," the newly crowned Indiana Republican Senate candidate told NPR in a recent interview.

But Mourdock, 60, who on Tuesday toppled six-term Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in a GOP primary, is a determined if not dynamic campaigner, those who know him say, and no newcomer to the trail.

"Richard Mourdock is right: He's not the most charismatic person, but he's the real deal," says Greg Fettig, co-founder of Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate, the group that rallied state and national Tea Party efforts to defeat Lugar.

"He doesn't get extremely excited, and he doesn't get really low," says Fettig, echoing Mourdock's description of himself to NPR as a "pretty even-keeled person."

His defeat of the venerable Lugar, 80, has put the largely unknown two-term state treasurer in the national spotlight.

Democrats, sensing a sliver of opportunity in the fall race now that incumbent Lugar has been defeated, are scrambling to portray Mourdock as a fringe candidate, while his supporters double down on the candidate's sometimes teary commitment to hard-line fiscal conservatism.

"I think the race is going to be competitive," says Jack Colwell, a longtime political reporter and columnist at the South Bend Tribune.

Rep. Joe Donnelly, the Democratic candidate, "is a Blue Dog and a moderate," says Colwell, "but with the makeup of the state, Mourdock is going to be the favorite."

Mourdock also benefits from the top of the Republican ticket, which features popular Rep. Mike Pence running for governor — and from the Obama campaign's decision not to include Indiana in its working list of states where it plans to compete hard.

And no one, say those who know him, should mistake Mourdock's low-key personality with a lack of conservative fervor.

"He would be a very conservative Republican in the Senate," says Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of public affairs at Indiana University.

Lenkowsky and others note that during an interview last month with the Indianapolis Star, Mourdock made what has become his most frequently cited assertion: "We need less bipartisanship in Congress."

Mourdock's positions mirror those of the Tea Party and the Republican Party's cultural conservative base.

He advocates repeal of the president's health care law and a $7.6 trillion cut to federal spending over 10 years. He opposes the DREAM Act, wants Roe v. Wade overturned, and says he'd vote against "activist liberal judges." He's against cap-and-trade solutions to environmental concerns, has an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association, and wants to eliminate the Internal Revenue Service and replace it with a "consumption tax."

The Frequent Candidate

Though those in the Tea Party movement are apt to embrace nonpoliticians, Mourdock, a geologist whose pre-politics career included stints at the AMAX Coal Co. and the Standard Oil Co., has spent the better part of a quarter century running for office — frequently without success.

Mourdock lost consecutive congressional bids in 1988, 1990 and 1992. He failed even to gain the Republican nomination in 1988, and lost in the general election in the next two cycles. In 2002, he ran unsuccessfully for his party's nomination for secretary of state.

Richard Mourdock greets supporter Paul Wheeler early last year, before announcing he would seek Richard Lugar's U.S. Senate seat.
Tom Strattman / AP
Richard Mourdock greets supporter Paul Wheeler early last year, before announcing he would seek Richard Lugar's U.S. Senate seat.

Mourdock, who has run nine marathons, including one on his 60th birthday, finally won office in 2006, when he was elected state treasurer with 52 percent of the vote. He was re-elected in 2010 with more than 62 percent of the vote.

Fettig and other Mourdock partisans like to note that their guy was the state's leading vote-getter in the 2010 election, besting even successful GOP Senate candidate Dan Coats' vote tally.

Colwell, the columnist, however, notes that Mourdock's Democratic opponent also got the most votes of any candidate in his party, a phenomenon likely due to the fact that, unlike in the Coats race, there was no Libertarian candidate competing in the state treasurer's race. (The Libertarian in the Senate race got 5 percent of the vote.)

State treasurer, as in most states, is not a high-profile job in Indiana. Until Mourdock and his supporters started hitting the airwaves with anti-Lugar ads, he was best known for a lawsuit he filed against the Obama administration for its 2009 auto industry bailout.

The unsuccessful effort claimed that three Indiana state funds invested in Chrysler did not get a fair shake in the administration's deal with Detroit.

That lawsuit, while not sitting well with some in a state dependent on auto industry jobs, made Mourdock "a rock star" with Tea Party Republicans, Fettig says.

Mourdock became a regular at Tea Party events, and headed to Washington by bus for the big 2009 rally at the Capitol.

"Richard Mourdock may not say he's Tea Party," Fettig says, "but we know he is."

A Questionable Comparison

Democrats have raced to compare Mourdock with the disastrous Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell, who won Delaware's 2010 GOP Senate primary and lost badly in the general election.

That comparison, however, will very likely prove a big stretch.

"The efforts to portray him as Christine O'Donnell, 'I'm not a witch,' are not accurate," says Colwell, making reference to O'Donnell's campaign ad that addressed her past assertion that she had dabbled in witchcraft.

Mourdock is an experienced politician, twice elected to statewide office, and with support broader than just one corner of the party.

"This is a completely different dynamic," Fettig says. "Richard Mourdock is embraced in the Republican Party. He is not some fringe element like Christine O'Donnell was."

And Indiana is not Delaware.

Mourdock was careful on primary night not to make too much of his Tea Party support in his victory speech, recognizing, Fettig says, that he doesn't want to be identified with just one group.

In his interview with NPR's Tamara Keith, Mourdock says his style is that of a marathoner.

"These campaigns are not sprints," he said. "I've run nine marathons, and one thing you learn is you never change your pace in the last two miles, you just keep going.

"We're just going to keep the same pace," he said.

Dogged Days

With Mourdock, an Ohio native who got his master's degree from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., voters can expect to hear tough talk cloaked in a low-key delivery.

He doesn't "seem Tea Party," is how he's been described.

Since winning the primary, he has characterized "bipartisanship" as Democrats coming over to the Republican point of view. (This comes on the heels of a state survey that suggests a large number of voters would like somebody who could reach across the aisle, Colwell notes.)

Mourdock watchers are already debating whether, if elected to the Senate, he will be more like Tea Party firebrand Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., or a more mainstream-by-current-standards conservative like Coats, Indiana's other senator. Coats, who had previously served a decade in the Senate during the 1990s, survived Tea Party opposition in 2010 and is now deemed acceptable by activists like Fettig.

One guarantee is that Mourdock won't somehow transform himself into a firebrand. It's just not his style.

And really, Lenkowsky says, that seems to be no problem in Indiana.

"It would be pretty hard to describe Dick Lugar as charismatic," he says, "or Evan Bayh, or Dan Coats, or Mitch Daniels."

Bayh is a former Democratic senator; Daniels is Indiana's Republican governor.

Mourdock, Lenkowsky says, "fits perfectly."

NPR's Tamara Keith contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.