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Richard Mourdock's comments on rape, abortion ignite a political firestorm

By CL - Posted on 25 October 2012

U.S. Senate nominee Richard Mourdock’s comments on rape and abortion have ignited a political firestorm that reaches far beyond his own election to the race for the White House.

In fact, the first Republican statement disavowing Mourdock’s words, made late Tuesday at a Senate debate, came from the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney. By Wednesday, Senate candidates in other races across the nation were doing the same.

Mourdock’s attempt Wednesday to clarify his words — apologizing only for how they were interpreted — did nothing to stem the tide of Republicans, including Indiana gubernatorial nominee Mike Pence, racing to disagree with him even as they stood by his candidacy. And it was his name that dominated the political headlines throughout the day.

For Republicans, and particularly Romney, the timing — less than two weeks before the election — could not be worse.

“This is the moment when people actually focus in and remember what the candidates say,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.

While no one expects this will hurt Romney in Indiana, a tiny shift can have a huge impact in the handful of swing states that will determine the presidency. Recent polls have shown Romney closing the gender gap that has benefitted President Barack Obama and other Democrats. Romney had made strides in the debates at making undecided voters more comfortable with him.

Instead of talking about the economy, jobs and Obama’s record, the political debate Wednesday revolved around abortion.

Making it worse for Romney: Mourdock, Indiana’s state treasurer, is not just any Republican candidate for Senate. He is the only Senate candidate that Romney is backing in the general election with a TV ad.

“This fall, I’m supporting Richard Mourdock for Senate,” Romney said in the ad. “This is a man who I want to see in Washington.”

That ad began on Monday.

“I’m sure they’re cursing their timing,” Sabato said.

By the next evening, Romney was distancing himself from Mourdock’s words, though not the man. The endorsement and the ad both remained.

Obama’s campaign was leaping on the issue, making sure reporters traveling with the campaign had heard about them.

“The president felt those comments were outrageous and demeaning to women,” said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “This is a reminder that a Republican Congress working with a Republican President Mitt Romney would (feel) that women should not be able to make choices about their own health care.”

The rush for Romney to defuse the issue, and for the Obama campaign to fan the flames, was obvious.

“This close to Election Day a statement like Mourdock’s has the potential of being decisive,” said Robert Schmuhl, professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Polls have shown Mourdock and Donnelly in a statistical dead heat, with Mourdock struggling to win over independents and some of the Republicans who had backed veteran Sen. Richard Lugar in the primary.

Mourdock still has the solid backing of key Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Jon Cornyn, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee. 

But, Schmuhl said, Mourdock will have to “dig more deeply into the conservative Republican base.” 

“Independent women, especially those who are undecided, will undoubtedly take a longer look at whom to vote for.”

In a “24-7 media world,” Schmuhl said, stories like this are no longer just an in-state story.

Romney, he said, has to be concerned about Ohio, a state deemed crucial to the race. 

“Indiana coverage that jumps over the border could make those in that key battleground state take another look at Republican candidates, including Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan,” he said.

The controversy erupted over a question in Tuesday’s debate among Mourdock and the other two candidates for U.S. Senate: Democrat U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly and Libertarian Andrew Horning.

All three oppose abortion. And though Mourdock goes further than many Republicans — including Romney — in opposing exceptions for victims of rape and incest, his belief that only women whose lives are in danger should have access to abortion is not extreme in the Republican Party. The party’s platform, adopted in August, does not call for any exemptions.

But hearing Mourdock lay out his view, and tying it to God’s intent, stunned many.

“Life is that gift from God. And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape that it is something God intended to happen,” Mourdock said at the debate.

Wednesday morning, he would have been getting ready for a fundraising event with New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte. Instead, though the Columbia Club event went on, she stayed in New Hampshire, one more Republican putting distance between herself and Mourdock.

Mourdock, meanwhile, was at the Indiana Republican Party headquarters — without GOP Chairman Eric Holcomb or other GOP figures at his side — trying to explain his words.

“I absolutely abhor violence. I abhor any kind of sexual violence. I abhor rape,” he said. “The God that I worship would never ever want to see evil done. . . . I spoke from my heart. I spoke with my principle. I spoke from my faith.”

Anyone who viewed the videotape from the Senate debate “understands fully what I meant,” he said, while also saying that he had been “inarticulate.”

“So many people mistook, twisted, came to misunderstand the points that I was trying to make,” he said. “. . . Certainly I did not intend to suggest that God wants rape, that God pushes people to rape.

“The fact that I left any doubt as to what my meaning was on where my positions are on abortion, that I regret and that I apologize for. But I stand by my positions.”

He grew impatient as reporters tried to clarify that his apology was not for his words but for their interpretation.

“The apology — as I said before, roll this tape back — is if anybody misinterpreted what I said,” Mourdock said.

Sabato said the news conference didn’t help Mourdock and Republicans put this behind them.

“He kept veering from humility to rage,” he said. “He kept using the word ‘twisted.’ His problem is a lot of people think he’s the one who’s twisted.”

Mourdock’s words cost him the vote of Clinton Jones, a 37-year-old Lebanon man who said he had been undecided about which Senate nominee would get his vote until he heard Mourdock’s words.

Now, he said, “there’s no way I want to see him in office.”

“It was a comment that, as a father of three girls, really, really irritated me,” Jones said. “He said that if a woman got raped, that they should accept the child as a gift from God, which really isn’t true. It’s going to be a reminder of a horrible event in their life, which is going to turn around and push the mother into a depression where she might hurt herself or the child or both.”

Yet people who have lived through that “horrible event” differ in their views. Peter Wade, a 62-year-old Indianapolis resident, said a relative was raped and had a child. He supports Mourdock as vehemently as Steph Mineart, a 44-year-old Indianapolis woman who became pregnant as the result of a rape, opposes Mourdock.

Mineart said she was raped while a student at Ball State University. A miscarriage spared her from having to make a decision on abortion. She thinks that choice should always rest with the woman, not a politician.

“There’s no way he could know,” she said of Mourdock. “There’s no way he’ll ever be in that position. How could he say that? It’s such a thoughtless and unkind thing to say.”

She’s a Democrat, and Mourdock was never getting her vote. But, Mineart said, she would like to hear “a real apology” from him.

Wade, though, said that while his relative’s pregnancy was a constant reminder of her ordeal, he viewed abortion as giving the death sentence to the baby while the rapist got 30 months in prison.

Mourdock, Wade said, “was simply saying that even if life was created in a rape, as bad as that is, God had a purpose for that life. Any orthodox Christian belief is going to endorse that.”

He expected the uproar over the comments to fade as the election approaches.

Democrats were working Wednesday to make sure they didn’t.

Donnelly, the Democratic nominee for Senate, held a short news conference outside the Julian Center for abused women to criticize Mourdock.

“Let me say that I am pro-life, but this controversy is not about pro-life. It is about Mr. Mourdock’s words and his continuation of extreme positions. His words were extreme, but maybe as important, hurtful to survivors of sexual abuse,” Donnelly said. “It is legitimate for Hoosiers to expect candidates running for the United States Senate to not take such positions.”

Asked if this was a turning point in the election, Donnelly said: “You know, I have no idea about that, and I don’t approach this in regards to the race.”

Wednesday, though, all you had to do was to turn on a cable news show or click on a political website to know that this firestorm is all about the election. Voters have 13 days to decide what it means.