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Indiana's Joe Donnelly wants to be a neighborly senator

When Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish took the field Saturday in South Bend against their archrival, the Michigan Wolverines, Joe Donnelly was there.

He and his wife, daughter and son-in-law were in the last row of what used to be the “old” stadium. The same place the family has sat for 30 years.

“It’s a huge game, huge game,” said Indiana’s freshman U.S. senator earlier this week adding, “We’ll see who we are after this game.”

He was talking sports.

But I was thinking politics.

In more ways than one, Donnelly is a charter member of the Fighting Irish. One generation removed from the Old Sod, he attended Notre Dame as an undergrad and then for law school.

He spent three terms in Congress before defeating, in November, 2012, a tea party favorite, Richard Mourdock, whose idiotic statements about women, rape and “God’s plan” sent him spinning into political irrelevance. Donnelly now occupies the seat in the Senate that once belonged to one of that chamber’s great moderates, Republican Richard Lugar.

When Donnelly and I met in Chicago on Friday over iced tea, there seemed no great inclination on his part to talk about the coming 2014 election in combatant terms.

Yes, he was in town to help raise money for his former congressional colleague and Michigan Democrat Gary Peters, who is in a tossup race for the U.S. Senate against Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, the GOP nominee. And yes, the battle for the balance of power in the Senate — now 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans, 2 Independents — is a heated one.

“I think it’s going to be really close,” he said. “Democrats may hold it. But not by much. I see two seats either way.”

But without some bipartisanship, whomever holds the slender majority won’t be able to do much, if anything, with it. It’s something Donnelly doesn’t deny.

But in a climate of flaming political rhetoric, don’t count Donnelly among those trying to make hay in Indiana by putting down Illinois.

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