GREENFIELD — Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock is standing by his statement during a Tuesday debate that when a woman becomes pregnant during rape, “that’s something God intended.”
A political firestorm was quick to follow. Mourdock said critics have twisted his words into another meaning. But local politicos wonder whether the gaffe will hurt the candidate or even cost Mourdock the election.
Mourdock, who defeated longtime Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in the May primary, is in a close race with Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly for the Senate seat. Libertarian Andrew Horning is also running.
The question posed to Mourdock, a tea party favorite, was whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest.
“I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen,” Mourdock said.
As many Republican candidates distanced themselves from the statement Wednesday, local party leaders say the words could be the deciding factor in who will be Indiana’s next senator.
“It should (cost him the election). It was offensive to women,” said Michael Adkins, Hancock County Democratic Party chairman and candidate for state Senate.
Adkins said because the race is so close, voters who were on the bubble may now decide to vote for Donnelly. That especially rings true for so-called Lugar Republicans, who supported the longtime senator in the spring.
“Democrats fall in love with a candidate, Republicans fall in line,” Adkins said. “There’s not a lot of Republicans that are following the line in this one.”
But local Republicans and tea party leaders – who were among the first to support Mourdock when he entered the race – say the issue is being blown out of proportion.
Randy Harrison, president of the Tea Party of Hancock County, said people tend to jump on such comments, but in three or four days it will be forgiven.
“I’m sure Donnelly’s camp will try to use it to their advantage, but I just don’t think it’s a major factor in voting,” Harrison said, adding that more people are concerned about the economy than social issues in this election cycle.
Janice Silvey, Hancock County Republican Party chairwoman, said the media has twisted the meaning of Mourdock’s statement and she doesn’t think it will cost him the election.
John Patton, Greenfield City Councilman and tea party activist, pointed out that the other two candidates are pro-life as well.
“I think the Democrats were just looking for another Todd Akin moment,” he said, referring to the Missouri Republican Senate candidate’s remarks this summer about women’s bodies having ways to prevent pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape.”
Patton said Mourdock’s statement doesn’t rise to the level of controversy of Akin’s comment, nor should it be treated as such.
Tara Armstrong, vice chairwoman of the Hancock County GOP, acknowledged that this could be a turning point in the election.
“At this stage in the game, making those types of gaffes can be harmful, especially when it’s so close,” she said.
But Mourdock says to twist his words to suggest that God approves of rape was certainly not what he intended.
Wednesday, Mourdock said in a news conference that he abhors any sexual violence and regrets it if his comment left another impression. He said he firmly believes that all life is precious and that he abhors violence of any kind.
“If they came away with any impression other than that I truly regret it,” Mourdock said. “I’ve certainly been humbled by the fact that so many people think that somehow was an interpretation.”
Still, Donnelly called the statement insulting to rape victims and their families. But Horning, the Libertarian, issued a statement in defense of Mourdock, saying while he would not craft federal policy on the matter, he agrees with Mourdock that “God’s mercy could be seen in the birth of a child, no matter what else may have happened up to that point.”
The issue could also impact other candidates. Presidential hopeful Gov. Mitt Romney has endorsed Mourdock, but Wednesday made it clear that he disagrees with Mourdock’s stance.
President Barack Obama called Mourdock’s statement “outrageous and demeaning to women.”
Republican Rep. Mike Pence, who is running for governor, also rejected the comment.
“I disagree with Richard Mourdock’s statement and urged him to apologize,” Pence said Wednesday at a campaign stop in New Palestine.
Pence says he has a record of being pro-life while consistently supporting the exception of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother.
Democratic candidate John Gregg’s campaign, however, was quick to point out a Fort Wayne Journal Gazette story to the contrary. According to the article, Pence answered a survey from Indiana Right to Life that abortion should be allowed only in the case of the pregnancy affecting the life of the mother.
The Pence campaign did not respond to that statement.
Candidates for Indiana’s 6th Congressional District all disagree with Mourdock’s statement.
Republican Luke Messer said Mourdock should apologize, but he did not want to comment on whether it would hurt Mourdock’s chances of winning. Still, Messer said for the campaign to get back on track, it must get back to the major election issues including jobs, the economy and the “explosive growth of spending” in federal government.
Democrat Brad Bookout said while he is against abortion, he believes rape is a circumstance for an exception to that stance.
“I don’t have female reproductive organs, and neither do these gentlemen. Why they’re talking about it and making decisions on behalf of others, I don’t know, and I disagree with him,” Bookout said. “We have a bunch of middle-aged white men making decisions on behalf of women in our community, and it’s insulting.”
Libertarian Rex Bell also says he’s against abortion but believes in the rape exception. But Bell also believes decisions on social issues should be made at the state level instead of by the federal government.
While many Republicans tried to distance themselves from Mourdock, several groups and politicians came to his side.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has invested heavily in Mourdock’s campaign, said his words are being twisted.
“Richard and I, along with millions of Americans – including even Joe Donnelly – believe that life is a gift from God,” NRSC Chairman and Texas Sen. John Cornyn said in a statement. “To try to construe his words as anything other than a restatement of that belief is irresponsible and ridiculous.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.