INDIANAPOLIS – Vice President Mike Pence strode to the stage Saturday morning with a clear message for his home-state GOP comrades.
“They keep talking about this blue wave across America,” Pence said during a rally for businessman Mike Braun, Sen. Joe Donnelly’s (D-IN) opponent. “But if Indiana does our part, the red wall starts here.”
Donnelly is one of a number of red-state Democrats whose personal likability and independent brands kept them ahead of their GOP Senate opponents for much of the summer and gave Democrats hope they could win enough red states to seize the Senate. But then came the unexpected confirmation saga of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. While surveys indicate a majority of Americans opposed Kavanaugh’s confirmation, it seems to have sparked an intense level of polarization on both sides just as campaign season arrived in earnest.
That’s a problem for red-state Senate Democratic candidates who opposed Kavanaugh like Donnelly, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), the only one in the group who supported Kavanaugh. Democrats likely need to win three of these four races to win back the Senate, a prospect that looks increasingly difficult, and pick up seats in Nevada and Arizona that don’t look as much like slam dunks as they did weeks ago. If most lose, Democrats will lose ground in the Senate — a real possibility.
Standing athwart this polarization is Donnelly, a folksy Democrat who prides himself on his independence and “Hoosier values.”
Recent surrogate visits to the state show how important the race is. Pence’s return home came the same weekend that former Vice President Joe Biden rallied for Donnelly in northwest Indiana, a union-heavy region in suburban Chicago that’s one of Democrats’ few strongholds around the state.
Biden was careful to stress Donnelly’s bipartisan bona fides even as he revved up the partisan Democratic crowd.
“Joe understands that it’s not weakness to reach across the aisle and reach compromise without giving up on any of your principles. Joe understands our system cannot function without consensus,” Biden declared.
How Donnelly defends his vote against Kavanaugh is telling.
“I voted for Justice Gorsuch and I would vote for Justice Gorsuch today. But I was very concerned about the way [Kavanaugh] conducted himself,” the senator told TPM Sunday after rallying the troops at a local Democratic headquarters in Merrillville. “I stood strong with President Trump to say look, I would be more than happy to find you another nominee who can serve.”
Donnelly’s Kavanaugh vote was brought up unprompted by voters at both his rally and Braun’s.
Rhea Arthur attended the Pence-Braun rally in Indianapolis Saturday morning, and said she’d been leaning towards voting for Donnelly — until the Kavanaugh vote.
“I did like Donnelly. But he’s not thinking about Indiana people. He’s thinking about his [party] leaders,” she said.
Arthur voted for Republican Richard Mourdock in 2012 even after he made a major gaffe about rape and abortion. Donnelly won that race by a six-point margin.
Republicans think Kavanaugh has helped them in Indiana, where early voting started Oct. 10. One Braun ally said it was the “first mistake” the savvy Donnelly had made all campaign. But they don’t seem to see it as a silver bullet.
Pence went after Donnelly’s Kavanaugh vote in his speech at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis Saturday, but only as part of a litany of slights towards Trump including his votes against the GOP tax cuts and defunding Planned Parenthood.
“Joe voted no,” he intoned time after each example, a line he’s also used against Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) — and would likely use against any Democrat named Joe.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s latest ad, featuring Pence, hits Donnelly on the vote as well, as does a spot from the National Rifle Association.
Braun himself hasn’t been leaning that hard into Kavanaugh on the trail and in his paid advertising. He didn’t even mention the vote during a quick stump speech morning as he introduced Pence. His latest ad mentions Donnelly’s vote against confirming the justice only briefly, before pivoting into an attack on Donnelly’s past support for Hillary Clinton.
His campaign has focused less on specific policy issues and more on hammering home the point that he’ll be a stalwart supporter of Trump.
“Sleepin’ Joe has got a record, you know, that doesn’t line up with Hoosiers,” Braun said, using Trump’s nickname for Donnelly. “He calls himself the hired help. … He looks like the tired help. And with his performance, I think it ought to be the fired help.”
Donnelly has highlighted his work across the aisle with Trump, while hammering Braun over health care and his business record. His latest ad spotlights his vote to confirm Gorsuch, his support for Trump’s border wall, and Trump praising him for his work on a bipartisan “right to try” bill that allows terminally ill people to try experimental drug treatments.
There’s still plenty of time until the election for voters’ focus to shift. Less than a month ago, headlines were focused on Paul Manafort’s guilty plea.
“The Kavanaugh matter has energized people. I’ve certainly heard that. What I’ve said to several people is we’re still 24 days away,” Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN) told TPM at the Pence-Braun rally. “We still have light years to go in many ways before this election’s over.”
And Brooks conceded that Donnelly’s folksy appeal is giving him a shot.
“Everyone acknowledges that he is a nice man and he is an incredibly hard worker,” she said, after highlighting areas where she thought Donnelly was out of step with the state’s voters.
The one policy area where Donnelly has been aggressive is health care. He’s hammered Braun for having high health insurance premiums for his workers and for supporting a lawsuit that would end the ban on preexisting conditions. Donnelly routinely highlights his vote against repealing Obamacare.
“We were able to win [in 2012] because of your hard work, all of you. And because of that we were able to save health care by one vote,” he told volunteers at the Merrillville event.
Donnelly will need a strong showing both with the blue-collar, populist voters who fled his party last election and with GOP-leaning suburban women turned off by Trump.
“What Joe’s doing is painting himself as someone who’ll work with Trump when he can and be an independent voice from Trump when he thinks it’s necessary. Braun has done the exact opposite, he’s attached Trump to his hip and is trying to ride him across the finish line,” said former Rep. Baron Hill (D-IN). “And I think that’s a mistake here, people want an independent voice as opposed to a lapdog for Trump.”
When Obama pulled off an improbable victory in the state in 2008, he carried 15 of the state’s 92 counties. Donnelly won 26 when he upset Mourdock in 2012, posting huge margins in the counties near Chicago. He over-performed in the donut counties around Indianapolis, and carried chunks of suburban and exurban territory near Louisville, Cincinnati and Evansville. Clinton carried just four counties statewide last election.
Jerome Davidson, who works for the United Steelworkers, said the difference between Clinton’s approach and Donnelly’s was night and day.
“The reason why he won is what he’s doing right there,” he said, pointing to Donnelly as the senator greeted local supporters with hearty handshakes at one of his whistle-stop events in Northwest Indiana Saturday. “She didn’t come to the Rust Belt and do that, right there — talking to people and shaking hands. This is why he’ll win again.”
Even as the GOP base appears to be shaking awake, it’s clear that Democrats’ white-hot fury hasn’t dimmed. That includes in red states like Indiana that still have plenty of pockets of blue voters. And there are plenty of moderate Republicans and independents who remain open to backing someone who’s split with the president.
Bob Roach, an electrical engineer at a Northwest Indiana steel plant who attended the Donnelly-Biden rally, had been so turned off by both Trump and Hillary Clinton that he skipped the top of the ticket in 2016.
He said he’d “never, ever voted straight-party” in his life.
But Roach said this year was different — that voting down the line for Democrats will be “the easiest vote I ever made.” Backing Donnelly was a no-brainer for him.
It remains to be seen whether there are enough Bob Roaches out there to send Donnelly back to the Senate.