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Blue Candidates in Red States

In this breakdown of red state Indiana’s pricey and cutthroat Senate race, Professor Hershey considers Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly’s chances of beating Trump-backed Mike Braun

  • Marjorie Hershey
October 12, 2018

Joe Donnelly (picture above) was elected to the U.S. Senate from Indiana in 2012 because Republican primary voters were still tea-partying. They had firmly rejected the bid of a senior Republican statesman, Sen. Richard Lugar, to remain in the Senate for a seventh term. Lugar, among other notable accomplishments, was co-author of the Nunn-Lugar Act, which provided funding and expertise to former Soviet states to decommission their nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons stockpiles. The beneficiary of this right-wing spasm in 2012 was state treasurer Richard Mourdock, who beat Lugar in the primary. The challenger’s stands on major Republican policies didn’t differ as much from Lugar’s as did his approach to politics, which better fit the take-no-prisoners sensibilities of the Tea Party. Unfortunately for Mourdock, the style that worked well in an all-Republican contest was not as well-suited to a general election. Mourdock stated in a candidates’ debate that “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen," and Donnelly narrowly won the Senate seat.

How does a Democratic senator keep his seat in a red state? Donald Trump won Indiana in 2016 by a full 19 percentage points — one of Trump’s biggest victories in the Midwest. The typical statewide vote division in Indiana is 60 percent Republican, 40 percent Democratic. So, Donnelly could bring every one of the state’s Democrats to the polls and still lose. His approach, then, has been to stress his bipartisanship and the issues (a border wall, tax cuts) on which he agrees with President Trump. But in these polarized times, that approach has angered many Democrats who assume that as a result, there are no real differences on issues between Donnelly and his opponent Mike Braun, the multimillionaire owner of an auto parts distributing company who served briefly in the state legislature.

Both Donnelly and Braun are targeting their appeals to Trump voters: white, middle-aged, and older men with some but not a lot of education. Donnelly is an attorney, but his ads often show him driving a large truck. The multimillionaire industrialist Braun invariably appears wearing a worker’s blue shirt and jeans. And both candidates’ ads try to undercut the other’s blue-collar credentials. Ads funded by the pro-Democratic American Bridge have charged that Braun’s trucking and distribution companies imported substantial amounts of goods from China and were penalized by the U.S. Department of Labor for failing to pay employees for overtime work. On the other hand, a frequent claim of one of Braun’s outside funders, Sen. Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund PAC, was that Donnelly’s brother’s firm made money by outsourcing jobs to Mexico (a claim Politifact rated as “mostly false”). The PAC’s ads labeled him “Mexico Joe.”

The race will undoubtedly be one of the most expensive in the country, because Democrats must keep Donnelly’s seat to have a chance at winning a majority in a Senate landscape that highly advantages Republicans in 2018. The big spending started in the primary. Braun’s main Republican opponents, incumbent Congress members Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, spent about $8 million, mainly on ads attacking one another. (They were so successful that both were beaten by Braun.) Like Donald Trump, Braun self-funded during the primary campaign, stating that he wouldn’t be beholden to anyone in the Washington D.C. “swamp,” though (also like Trump) he began holding fundraisers in Washington and other non-Hoosier sites soon after his primary victory. Both Braun and Trump may have felt that they needed to dip into their own personal fortune to win a primary against several competitors. But self-funding can actually be a disadvantage in the general election. Soliciting contributions from a variety of donors helps a non-incumbent build contacts and encourages loyalty to the funded candidate.

Outside spenders entered the contest even before the campaign began. Americans for Prosperity, an independent group backed by the Koch brothers, spent millions this year to pressure Donnelly to vote for tax reform, and pro-Trump groups such as America First Policies urged him to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet as of the most recent reporting period (October 12), Donnelly has outraised Braun, with law firms and financial services contributors as the biggest sources of his money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

One surprise in the race was the recent decision of the Indiana state Chamber of Commerce to decline to endorse either candidate. The state Chamber typically has been reliable in endorsing Republican candidates. But Braun offended the Chamber by stapling himself to Trump on issues, including the tariffs Trump has placed on imports, which have prompted retaliatory tariffs on major Indiana exports such as soybeans. Many Hoosier farmers and business owners have been hard hit as a result.

So, at this point, the race fully deserves its label as a “toss-up.” In terms of state partisanship, the seat ought to be Braun’s. But Joe Donnelly, a moderate Democrat with strong labor support and a demonstrated ability to cross the aisle and back a president who retains intense appeal in Indiana, is exactly the kind of Democrat who might be able to defy the odds and win another Senate term.

Marjorie Hershey is Professor of Political Science at Indiana University Bloomington. Her research focuses on political parties, campaigns, and elections.

(Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

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