As a Democrat in a red state he was at a major disadvantage. Expected to face a popular incumbent in Richard Lugar, he seemed out of his depth.
Then a funny thing happened. The Tea Party threw out Lugar and picked hard-liner Richard Mourdock instead.
And now all is changed utterly in a key senate race that could dictate ultimate control of that chamber. Donnelly has a real shot and is now a slight favorite.
Joe Donnelly went to Notre Dame from Long Island New York and never left.
He settled in as a small businessman and lawyer in South Bend Indiana and soon found himself active in the local Democratic Party.
He was elected to Congress in 2006, winning by sweeping the St. Joseph’s County vote, which includes South Bend and Notre Dame.
I met Joe Donnelly at the White House St. Patrick’s Party last year and also at a Notre Dame game.
He is conservative by Democratic standards, and anti-abortion, except in the case of rape or incest and the life of the mother.
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Suddenly he has been cast into the center of a massive struggle for control of the U.S. senate as he comes on strong against Richard Mourdock, the Republican who upset Richard Lugar in the Republican primary.
This week the media has made the Indiana race the hottest in the country with Donnelly on the verge of a major upset after Mourdock made a statement in a debate that rape victims should be forced to carry their babies to full term.
At stake is not just the senate seat, but this is also a setback for Mitt Romney, who endorses Mourdock but who denied he supported Mourdock’s comments.
In a race tighter than a tick and where the women’s vote is critical, Mourdock’s comments caused a major headache for Romney -- and Mourdock himself.
“Today has not been a fun day,” Mourdock, close to tears, told a meeting of the Hamilton County Republican Party. “Professionally, emotionally, it’s been one of the toughest days of my life quite frankly.
“What I said last night I didn’t mean obviously to be mistaken but it became a news story,” he told the crowd. “For whatever reason, it seemed to further identify me in the public’s mind. And if that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is.”
Joe Donnelly did exactly the right thing, kept his mouth shut after disavowing Mourdock’s remarks.
He was following the first rule of politics that when your opponent is damaging himself you keep quiet as a church mouse.
Donnelly looked to have no chance when this senate race began and Lugar was widely expected to win the GOP nomination.
Speaking to pro-Obama friends at Notre Dame, they told me they would not canvass against Lugar, who was revered for his big picture world and foreign policy expertise.
Along came Mourdock and the Tea Party and they easily defeated Lugar who was out of touch and over 80.
But that move gave Donnelly’s long-shot effort an opening and now he could be on the brink of a major upset.
Donnelly would be likely known as the senator from Notre Dame, an underdog Irishman who defied the odds and took a shot against a bigger opponent who was much more fancied.
Sounds like a particular football team of his acquaintance.