Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly on Monday announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Indiana, wagering that an internal fight among Republicans gives Democrats a prime pick-up opportunity.
The seat is held by Richard Lugar, the Senate's most senior Republican. He has regularly won reelection with ease, but is facing a strong threat in the GOP primary from state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.
Publicly, Donnelly will say he is running without regard to the ultimate Republican nominee. His announcement video made no mention of his potential rivals, but instead focused on the economy.
"I want to take the fight for American jobs and opportunity to the United States Senate," he says. "I want to make sure that the voices of hardworking Hoosiers are heard."
But privately, state and national Democrats are counting on a 2012 race that looks a lot like the 2010 Senate race in Delaware.
Popular longtime Republican Rep. Mike Castle was seen as the senator-in-waiting after he declared for the Senate seat Joe Biden vacated to become vice president. But Christine O'Donnell's upset in the September primary gave Democrats an unexpected opportunity that enabled Democrat Chris Coons to win in November.
Lugar's moderate voting record -- National Journal ranked him as the third most-liberal Republican left in the Senate -- opens him up to the same "tea party" opposition that doomed Castle in 2010. Mourdock recently trumpeted victories in three straw poll votes among conservative activists.
Unlike other incumbent Republicans, Lugar has seemed to openly invite the confrontation with members of his party's right flank, recently telling a local television station they need to "get real."
Donnelly was first elected to represent Indiana's 2nd District in 2006, defeating Republican Chris Chocola. He survived the 2010 Republican wave with a narrow victory to win a third term. National Journal ranks his voting record as among the more conservative in the Democratic caucus.
Sen. Patty Murray, chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, said Donnelly's decision makes Indiana a prime pick-up opportunity for Democrats.
"He is a strong candidate who knows how to beat the odds and win tough campaigns. Most importantly, Joe is exactly the kind of tireless fighter Indiana families need to rebuild the state's economy, create jobs and get Hoosiers back to work," she said in a statement.
Republicans said Hoosier voters will reject Donnelly just as they rejected Brad Ellsworth in the 2010 Senate race won by the GOP's Dan Coats.
"Just like Ellsworth, Donnelly has been a partisan rubber stamp for liberal Democratic leaders in Washington, helping them ram through ObamaCare and the failed $787 billion stimulus debacle," National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said.
Indiana is poised to be a major battleground as Democrats seek to hold their slim Senate majority. The party is defending 23 seats, while offering Indiana as one of its six potential pickup targets.
President Obama, who held a jobs-related event in Indianapolis on Friday, is expected to again contest for the state's 11 electoral votes. Republicans questioned whether Donnelly would stand "side-by-side" with his party's standard-bearer.