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Experts Comment on Flap Over 'Rape' Remark in Indiana Senate Debate

Released: 10/24/2012 4:40 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: Indiana University
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The Indiana Senate race is getting attention as the result of a comment made by Republican candidate Richard Mourdock in Tuesday night's debate at Indiana University Southeast. State Treasurer Mourdock, who faces Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly, said that when a woman becomes pregnant as a result of rape, "that it is something that God intended to happen."

Indiana University experts offer these comments on the remark and its possible consequences:

Marjorie Hershey, professor of political science at IU Bloomington, notes that the race is crucial to Republicans and Democrats as they seek to control the Senate. That gives the comment added salience, as Democrats try to exploit Mourdock's vulnerability and Republicans shore up his support.

"'Gaffes' make a difference when they fit into a pattern that has already formed in people's feelings about a candidate," Hershey said. "This comment about rape fits into the perception that Mourdock is an extremist -- a charge that Rep. Donnelly has been making for months."

Rhonda Wrzenski, assistant professor of political science at IU Southeast, said the controversy could affect undecided voters who were already disaffected with Mourdock because he defeated longtime Sen. Richard Lugar in the Republican primary.

"Ultimately, this comment takes Richard Mourdock off message at a critical time in the campaign," Wrzenski said. "It's a distraction no candidate wants this close to Election Day."

Marie Eisenstein, associate professor of political science at IU Northwest, said the controversy doesn't change the dynamics of the race.

"While the race has been close, as of polls taken near Oct. 15, Mourdock was beginning to gain ground," she said. "While Mourdock will be perceived by some as too extreme because of this issue, Donnelly is a more liberal Democrat than Hoosiers have historically supported. Thus, within the context of this election, it will not change it."

Michael Wolf, associate professor of political science at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, says the focus on the remark interferes with Mourdock's attempt to portray himself as a moderate.

"Beyond the substance of the statement and its effect on voters, Mourdock has just punted his post-primary narrative of moderation," Wolf said. "The news cycle and airwaves will be eaten up with this rather than his appeals for the moderate Lugar voters he needs in a tight race."

Gerald Wright, professor of political science at IU Bloomington, said the comment underlines Mourdock's conservatism for voters who have not followed the contest. It also puts Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in a bind.

"It threatens to dominate the news cycle and throw the campaign off message," Wright said, "and it puts the candidate in a position of having to say whether he still endorses Mourdock. It is like a question about whether one is still beating his wife - there is not a good answer."

To speak with Wright, email wright1@indiana.edu or contact Steve Hinnefeld at 812-856-3488 or slhinnef@iu.edu.

Kristina Sheeler, professor and chair of the Department of Communication Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said Mourdock may have been trying to appeal to his tea-party supporters, but the tactic backfired.

“His remarks served to send the Lugar Republicans running and caused both Romney and (Indiana GOP gubernatorial candidate Mike) Pence to distance themselves from the candidate,” she said. “The election may be over for Mourdock.”

For more on Indiana University election news and sources, visit IU's Decision 2012 web page.

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