Election Day 2012 likely will be remembered as the day that the tea party wave crested — and broke.
By the time all the votes had been cast and counted, Indiana Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Joe Donnelly had claimed a victory over his Republican opponent, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a tea party favorite. And Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg had made his race against Republican Mike Pence a lot closer than anyone — including me — expected it to be. Pence won, 50 percent to 46 percent.
More telling was the fact that Pence, Mourdock, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett (who lost to Democrat Glenda Ritz) and every Republican but Attorney General Greg Zoeller ran behind Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney here in the state.
Just a few weeks ago, it all looked much different.
Into October, Mourdock was presumed to have a slight edge over Donnelly. Polls showed Pence with a double-digit lead over Gregg. And no one, but no one, thought that Ritz, an unknown, could defeat the much more heavily funded Tony Bennett.
An ill-timed and not particularly well-thought-out remark Mourdock made about abortion, rape and God’s will at the last Senate debate sank his candidacy. And it did damage to just about every other Republican on the ballot.
As soon as Mourdock made the statement and then refused to back away from it, he put every other GOP candidate in a bind. They either had to repudiate his candidacy and risk alienating the party’s conservative base or support him and lose independents and moderates.
Across the board, the Republican candidates tried to finesse the situation, but they all took hits.
Romney’s campaign fired off a statement condemning Mourdock’s comments almost as soon as the words had left his mouth, but the Republican presidential candidate refused to renounce his support for the Hoosier’s candidacy.
Pence also released a statement saying that he disagreed with Mourdock’s comments and urged him to apologize, but Pence also refused to repudiate Mourdock’s candidacy.
Democrats acted as if Christmas came nearly three months early.
Donnelly pounded Mourdock as an extremist and took advantage of a massive upsurge of campaign spending from out of state as Democrats and their constituencies saw an unanticipated opportunity.
Gregg linked Pence and Mourdock, which finally gave him an opening to attack Pence as a zealot on social issues.
And Barack Obama prodded Romney as a candidate with social policies from the 1950s.
Romney’s campaign spent the days leading up to the election pointing a finger at Hurricane Sandy as a reason for his defeat because it slowed his momentum and allowed Obama to look presidential.
There may be some truth to that, but they actually had taken a hit earlier than that.
Romney began to close the gap with Obama after the first presidential debate. The Republican did that not by speaking as an ideologue but by presenting himself as a pragmatic businessman, a moderate guy who just wanted to solve problems.
That seemed to be Romney’s genuine self, and the voters responded to it. In some national polls, he climbed past Obama. In several battleground states where he had been all but written off, Romney clawed back into contention. He seemed to be winning the battle for independents and moderates.
Then Mourdock became a national news story and knocked Romney off message. For close to a week, much of America either disparaged what Mourdock said or debated what he meant.
At a time when Romney had gained both traction and momentum trying to make the campaign about problem-solving and competence, Mourdock dragged it back to being a fight about ideology.
The ideology was that of the tea party. Mourdock’s adherence to it likely cost the GOP a great deal.
His stridency energized Democrats and independents more than any Democratic candidate was able to do on his or her own.
Thanks to Mourdock’s statement, Pence now will have a hard time arguing that he’s got a mandate. Republicans lost a seat in the U.S. Senate that had been theirs for 36 years. And Bennett took a hard fall.
And Romney won’t be hearing “Hail to the Chief” every time he enters a room.
The GOP has a lot to “thank” the tea party for.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.