WASHINGTON - While Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock hopes to continue his success this election cycle by staking out and holding political ground on the right, the candidates in the 2nd CD are rushing to the middle.
    
Former state Rep. Jackie Walorski, a Republican, launched a television ad in July that shows her driving rural roads in the district and extolling centrist virtues. She believes that’s where voters are on the political spectrum.
    
“They choose an independent voice to represent them in Washington,” Walorski said in an HPI interview. “That’s exactly who we are. That’s exactly what we’re running on.”
    
Her Democratic opponent, Brendan Mullen, said Walorski is trying to hide her true nature.
    
“She has been a political bomb-thrower for her entire career,” Mullen said in an HPI interview. “She’s a finger-in-your-face party hack who has only voted along party lines. For her to re-invent herself 100 days before the election is unacceptable.”
    
Mullen said that his campaign is gaining momentum “because of the moderation I’m selling. People are fearful of the Tea Party and what they’ve done to the state and to Washington.”
    
What both candidates agree on is that the political middle is the place to be in north-central Indiana.
    
For Walorski, that means highlighting a Statehouse record that she says steered clear of divisive politics. She served from 2004 through 2010 and estimates that only about 15% of the legislature’s votes were on “hot partisan issues.”
    
“That’s what [voters] expect to see in Washington,” Walorski said. “They want to see people coming across the divide. We were a model of that in Indiana.”
    
State Democratic Chairman Dan Parker counters that the most accurate portrait of Walorski was her 2010 race against incumbent Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly, who is running for the Senate this year against Mourdock. Donnelly edged Walorski by 3,000 votes in a tough campaign.
    
“Jackie Walorski’s image coming out of the 2010 election is one of a Tea Party candidate who is extremist and partisan,” Parker said. “That’s why I think you’re seeing her try to change her image in her first ad, which I thought was hilarious.”
    
Walorski’s legislative record buttresses her claim of centrism, according to campaign manager Brendon DelToro. In a statement, he said that she was “instrumental” in co-authoring or supporting “multiple bipartisan bills” including one that strengthened identity theft laws.
    
“Jackie has consistently been an independent voice for Hoosiers as proven by her successful tenure in the state legislature,” DelToro said in a statement. “On the contrary, Brendan Mullen is a D.C. insider who doesn’t know the first thing about building bipartisan coalitions to pass meaningful legislation for the benefit of Indiana’s second congressional district.”
    
This is the first run for any office for Mullen, a military veteran. He grew up in South Bend and attended John Adams High School before going to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he was the place kicker on the football team.
    
His military service took him to South Korea, Iraq, where he trained Iraqi security forces and was embedded with them on missions, and Ft. Belvoir, near Washington, D.C.
    
After he left the military in 2006, he worked in the Washington area for a small company that specialized in anti-terrorism and disaster-readiness consulting, where employment grew from one to 110 during his tenure. He then established his own firm, MKS2 LLC, a strategic planning, communication and information technology consulting firm that also engages in advocacy for Indiana National Guard and Reserve soldiers and their families and employs six full-time and 31 part-time workers.
    
Mullen moved his company, and family, back to the district in 2011 because he and his wife wanted to raise their daughter – with another one on the way – in South Bend. He’s quick to defuse attacks on his residency.
    
“I feel like I’ve never left,” Mullen said of his hometown.
    
He was inspired to run for office while attending memorial services for fellow soldiers at Arlington Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington. He said that the behavior of politicians was not living up to his friends’ sacrifices.
    
“I was raised on the values of hard work, family, fellowship and public service,” Mullen said. “Those are not the guiding lights that folks in Washington, D.C., are leading our country by. They’re bickering and acting like children.”
    
Although Mullen is trying to use the political-novice theme to his advantage, he’s raking in money like a savvy lawmaker. He has raised $804,177 as of June 30 and has $574,909 in cash on hand, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Walorski has raised $1,126,605 and has $724,545 on hand.
    
Walorski said that her fundraising is the product of a strong grass-roots network. She slapped the “Washington” label on Mullen to dismiss his numbers, asserting that he is raising money from Democratic leaders and unions.
    
“It’s not a surprise that Washington liberal Democrats are supporting a D.C. insider,” Walorski said.
    
Mullen shot back that he is as rooted in the district as Walorski.
    
“We are not a Washington, D.C., inside campaign,” Mullen said. “We are through-and-through a grass-roots effort. We are blessed, humbled and thrilled with the extraordinary response we’ve gotten.”
    
The question is whether Mullen can get voters to agree with his argument that the moderate Walorski is a fake Walorski.
    
There’s no doubt that the former TV reporter, university development professional and international humanitarian worker is a tireless campaigner who talks fast and can hit hard.
        
But her tenure in the state house was defined by the blue-collar area she served, according to a former colleague.
        
“Her district has the South-Bend personality,” said Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd CD and a former state senator who was in Indianapolis when Walorski was the assistant Republican House floor leader. “She knows the issues and challenges that people of north-central Indiana deal with.”
        
She’s also willing to go to bat for them, Stutzman said.
        
“She’s aggressive. She’s bold. She’s very articulate,” Stutzman said. “She’s not one to back down from a fight.”
        
Mullen will try to use Walorski’s time in the state house against her.
        
“My opponent has been walking in parades while I was in Iraq getting shot at,” Mullen said. “Washington no longer needs professional politicians. Indiana no longer needs professional politicians.”
    
Walorski sounds similar to Mullen when talking about the ire voters direct toward Washington.
    
“Hoosiers are more fed up with Congress today than they were in 2010,” Walorski said. “They’re looking for an independent voice to represent their values and not the two parties.”

Schoeff is HPI's Washington correspondent.