“I don’t feel bad about calling out the truth,” Ellsworth said Monday after the candidates’ last debate before next week’s election.
But the Democrat’s arguments don’t appear to be resonating with voters, leaving Ellsworth with a double-digit disadvantage in polls and more than $2 million behind in fundraising. Although candidates often go on the attack when behind, doing so could tarnish Ellsworth’s image as Mr. Nice Guy.
“It can be awkward,” said James McCann, a Purdue University political science professor. “There’s some potential for mixed messages there.”
Ellsworth, a conservative Democrat, has gone after Coats for votes he cast on guns, immigration and trade when he served in the Senate and House for nearly 20 years. Ellsworth also has worked to tie Coats to his former lobbying firms. Coats became a lobbyist in Washington after leaving the Senate in 1999.
But Democrats are also going after Coats personally, criticizing a statement he made about wanting to retire in North Carolina, where he owns a home, and accusing him of supporting an NFL team outside Indianapolis.
“Congressman Ellsworth is running the risk of damaging his own reputation by running a personal smear campaign, which is what they’ve attempted to do with their television ads and the rhetoric they use,” said Coats spokesman Pete Seat. “The campaign has shifted from desperate to sad.”
Ellsworth and Coats are running to replace Democrat Sen. Evan Bayh, who unexpectedly said in February he would not seek re-election.
When the Indianapolis Colts played the Washington Redskins recently, the Ellsworth campaign sent out an e-mail that said it would be no surprise if Coats wore burgundy and gold rather than Colts blue since he had lived in Virginia for years until renting a house this year in Indianapolis.
“We may make light of football allegiances, but the candidates’ allegiance to Hoosiers is no laughing matter,” campaign manager Cori Smith wrote in the e-mail to supporters before asking for contributions.
For the record, Seat said, Coats is a Colts fan.
This week, Democrats referenced footage from 2008, when Coats said he planned to move from Virginia to North Carolina after retiring. Ellsworth brought it up at Monday’s debate, with Coats responding that the North Carolina home is near his wife’s aging parents.
Coats has said the house is on the market, but Democrats note it’s not listed online. Coats’ real estate agent said the home is for sale through a non-public listing because of privacy concerns.
Analysts said none of Ellsworth’s attacks is new or especially damaging in this year’s GOP-friendly political climate. His arguments haven’t gained traction, and voters are unlikely to be swayed by them before the election, said Brian Vargus, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.
“They’re probably hitting the mute button,” Vargus said.
The latest poll, taken from Oct. 22 to Monday, showed Ellsworth with 32 percent of the vote, compared with 54 percent for Coats. The poll of 1,600 likely voters, conducted by SurveyUSA for the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.
Coats also had more than eight times as much campaign cash available heading into the final weeks before the election. The latest campaign finance reports show Coats had $1 million on hand, while Ellsworth had $119,000 as of the Oct. 13 filing deadline. In total, Coats raised $4.4 million compared to Ellsworth’s $2.3 million.
Still, Ellsworth is making campaign stops, and he worked at a phone bank with local volunteers this week. Ellsworth said he’s confident he did all he could with the time and resources he had in the race, which began late for Ellsworth since Bayh announce he wouldn’t run until February.