Republicans working to move Indiana firmly back into the land of red states after its 2008 support of Democrat Barack Obama hope to have plenty to celebrate Tuesday, but a U.S. Senate seat that has been a lock for the GOP for nearly four decades could be the night's spoiler.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and gubernatorial hopeful Mike Pence are heavily favored to win, and the GOP is looking for more success down the ballot — including a possible supermajority in the Indiana House, which would allow Republicans to conduct business without any Democrats present.
But the hotly contested U.S. Senate race between tea party-backed state Treasurer Richard Mourdock and Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly could provide a stinging upset for the party while granting Democrats a rare foothold in this conservative Midwestern state.
The race, which had been a statistical dead heat, was turned on its heels when Mourdock stated during a televised Oct. 23 debate that "even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.”
Democrats have pounced on the comments, using them to shore up their arguments that Mourdock is an extremist who will reject bipartisanship, even though Donnelly himself last year backed a measure that would have denied federal abortion funding even in cases of rape and incest.
Mourdock, who has criticized Donnelly for votes on issues ranging from the auto industry bailouts to the federal health care overhaul, has tried to move past the furor over the comments even as Democrats have worked to keep them front and center of the final days of the campaign.
"I'm feeling fantastic. All reports from around the state are very positive as far as voter turnout, Republicans are very excited," Mourdock said Monday while greeting diners at the First Watch Restaurant in Indianapolis.
"We're thrilled at the message of getting this economy turned around and being the 51st vote to repeal Obamacare," he said.
Despite Friday's Howey/DePauw poll that showed him up 11 percentage points, Donnelly took a more cautious approach during an appearance Monday with former U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh and congressional candidate Scott Reske at a Democratic campaign office in Fishers. Another poll by Rasmussen Reports shows Donnelly with a 3-point lead.
Donnelly beamed as Bayh sang his praises, but he demurred when asked how confident he was of victory.
"I run every race like I'm 10 points behind," he said.
The Senate race — which saw more than $25 million spent on ads by outside groups and the campaigns — has largely overshadowed Indiana's other races, which include all nine congressional seats, 25 state Senate seats and all 100 House seats. But that race brought national attention to a state that otherwise might have been overlooked as the presidential campaigns bypassed Indiana in favor of battleground states such as Ohio.
Obama's slim victory over then-contender John McCain in 2008 now appears to have been a fluke more than a sea change. Obama was the first Democrat to win the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but Romney appears poised for a potential double-digit victory.
Indiana Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb said Monday he's counting on a good showing Tuesday, but he is still fighting as though Democrats could make gains.
"We want to make sure we don't put the cart in front of the horse," Holcomb said. "I suspect it's going to be a good night for Republicans and a good night for Hoosier taxpayers."
Obama's 2008 state chairman, Kip Tew, blamed the president's performance in Indiana this year on factors ranging from the sluggish economy to Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who took credit for jobs saved through federal aid.
But Tew said Democrats contributed just as much by running from Obama on the campaign trail, rather than campaigning with him.
"You have to compete for voters' attention, and when there is no competition for voters' attention, they listen to the default answer," he said, noting the willingness of vulnerable Democrats like Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown to campaign with the president.
The lack of national attention has played out in early voting, which was down from 2008. The Indiana secretary of state's office reported that more than 460,000 people had voted across the state as of Friday, with the heaviest turnouts in urban Marion and Lake counties. That compares with about 516,000 who had voted by the Friday before Election Day in 2008.
Many voters rushed to meet the noon deadline for early voting Monday.
At the City-County Building in downtown Indianapolis, voters huddled in the November chill in a line nearly a block long. Many said they believed Obama deserved more time to right the country's economy.
Valerie Cole, a 51-year-old customer service representative, said she voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. The first time she voted for Obama it was "a black thing," said Cole, who is African-American, but not this time.
"I didn't expect him to do everything in four years. I knew he couldn't," Cole said. "It took more than four years to mess it up, and it's going to take more than four years to clean it up."
Indianapolis attorney Howard Howe, 61, said he supported Romney because of his concerns about jobs.
"The economy influenced my vote substantially," Howe said. "The private sector is responsible for jobs and it's under attack."