Republican Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said Tuesday night that pregnancy caused by rape can be "something God intended to happen."
Mourdock, Indiana's state treasurer and a Tea Party favorite, made the comments after saying that he believes abortion should not be allowed, except in cases where the mother's life is at risk.
The comments could hurt Mourdock, who has failed to pull ahead of Donnelly in the polls, despite Indiana's heavily Republican makeup. Much of that is because moderate Republicans who backed Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) remain undecided. Mourdock beat Lugar in the primary.
Donnelly, an anti-abortion rights Democrat, criticized the remarks in a statement following the debate.
"I think rape is a heinous and violent crime in every instance,” he said. “The God I believe in and the God I know most Hoosiers believe in, does not intend for rape to happen — ever. What Mr. Mourdock said is shocking, and it is stunning that he would be so disrespectful to survivors of rape."
Other Democrats jumped on the comments as well, hoping they'd found a moment similar to Rep. Todd Akin's (R-Mo.) remarks about "legitimate rape," which damaged his Senate campaign.
Mourdock later clarified his statement. "God creates life, and that was my point. God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that he does. Rape is a horrible thing, and for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick," he said.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which cut Akin off after his remarks in late August that "legitimate rape" rarely results in pregnancy, argued that the latest comments were starkly different and defended what Mourdock said.
"Of course we stand by him – it'd be patently ridiculous not to stand by him," National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Jesmer told The Hill Tuesday night when asked about the comments. "What he said, and millions of people believe, is life is a gift from God. That is something a lot of Republican and a lot of Democrats believe. Most pro-life people believe life is a gift."
The comments could also prove problematic for GOP nominee Mitt Romney, whose recent momentum in the polls has largely come from his closing the gap with female voters. Romney cut an ad endorsing Mourdock that began airing Tuesday — a fact that the Democratic National Committee quickly pointed out in a statement following the debate. Shortly afterwards, the liberal super-PAC American Bridge posted the video with the title "The Romney-Mourdock ticket."
President Obama has sought to drive a wedge between Romney and fiscally right-leaning, socially left-leaning women by focusing on issues like equal pay, contraception and funding for Planned Parenthood.
"Gov. Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock's comments, and they do not reflect his views," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement.
Romney also immediately put distance between himself and Akin after the congressman's comments in late August. Many in his party followed, calling on Akin to drop out of the race. Akin apologized for the remarks but refused to end his campaign.
--This report was originally posted at 9:53 p.m. and last updated at 10:52 p.m.