Republican U.S. Senate nominee Richard Mourdock's drubbing of six-term Sen. Richard Lugar was so complete, it could poke holes in Democrat claims that the tea party-backed victor is too extreme for mainstream Hoosiers.
Mourdock's wide margin of victory, combined with the fact he carried moderate parts of Indiana, shows he won mainstream Republicans to his side as well as conservative tea partiers, said former U.S. Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican who stayed neutral in the race.
“It wasn't solely ideological,” Souder said, adding that Mourdock's decisive win “showed he penetrated past the tea party and conservative base.”
Voter turnout in Allen County reached about 19 percent in Tuesday's primary, down 16 points from record-high levels in 2008 but on par with other recent presidential primary years. Of the ballots that were cast, Mourdock won seven of every 10 votes and beat Lugar in every corner of the county, including the most left-leaning parts of Fort Wayne, according to precinct-by-precinct figures.
“What I saw was a very thorough victory on the part of Mourdock,” said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
It isn't clear how many Democrats might have crossed party lines to help save Lugar's political career, Downs said. Indiana has open primaries, meaning voters can take a ballot for either party. But overall, nothing about Tuesday's vote figures appeared unusual, Downs said.
Democratic Senate nominee U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-2nd, has already begun attacking Mourdock as a right-wing extremist, seeking to exploit his tea party ties and hard-line conservative stances.
“Richard Mourdock needs the tea party for his candidacy. He is wholly of the tea party,” said Ben Ray, a spokesman for the Indiana Democratic Party.
He pointed to Mourdock's lawsuit to stop Chrysler's bankruptcy and claim that senators should not be elected directly by voters as examples of his extreme views, which some political analysts have suggested could make him a more vulnerable target for Democrats than Lugar would have been.
But given Mourdock's landslide victory over the 80-year-old Lugar, opponents could have a tough time making the case that he appeals only to fringe voters, Souder said.
“Donnelly would have a much better case if it was 52-48 (percent) because you could say it was just the extreme right wing,” he said.
This year's primary voter turnout dropped from 34 percent in 2008, when a hotly contested primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama brought Democrats to the polls in droves. But it increased from 16 percent in 2004 and 14 percent in 2000.
As soon as the results of Tuesday's primary became clear, Donnelly released a statement praising Lugar and trying to contrast the 36-year lawmaker's reputation of bipartisanship with Mourdock's rigid brand of conservatism.
“While Richard Mourdock trumpets his tea party ideas and claims bipartisanship is a dirty word, I will be meeting with the hardworking men and women of this state talking about how we can get Hoosiers back to work,” Donnelly said in the statement.
Mourdock, on the other hand, hopes to cast doubt on Donnelly by linking him with President Obama. In a stop Wednesday at Allen County Republican Party headquarters, he laid out his battle plan for the general election, blasting Donnelly for his votes in favor of “Obamacare” and the stimulus package.