U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) is considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election this year. And Indiana’s race is one of the most contentious in the country – outside groups alone have spent more than $45 million here since May.
There are five states President Donald Trump won by double-digits in which Democratic senators are up for re-election this year. Indiana is one of them – Trump won here by 19 points. And Donnelly knows that.
“My base is the people of Indiana. I don’t go to Washington as Democrat or as a Republican; I go as our senator,” Donnelly says. “I’m the hired help. I work for them every single day.”
Of course Republican Mike Braun sees it differently. One of Braun’s TV ads says, “Joe Donnelly says he’s in the middle but he’s not. He votes with Chuck Schumer, endorsed Hillary Clinton, and stands with the extreme left 80 percent of the time.”
But few would accuse Donnelly of representing the “extreme left” of the Democratic Party. One of Donnelly’s recent ads says, “The radical left wants to eliminate ICE. I support ICE and funding President Trump’s border wall.”
That’s a pretty conservative ad, especially from a Democrat. But political scientist Andrew Downs says it’s probably the right play for Donnelly.
“It should attract more voters from the middle than voters it might be turning off from the left,” Downs says.
He points out that Donnelly has done things that appeal to more liberal voters in Indiana too. At the top of that list is his vote against newly-minted Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault by several women.
Braun calls that decision “a gift” that helped his campaign.
“When Donnelly said he was going to vote against the Kavanaugh nomination, there’s been nothing in the stretch from Aug. 8 when I declared in ’17 to that moment in time when you could palpably measure the difference,” Braun says. “Small contributors went through the roof.”
Donnelly’s explanation for that vote is not a partisan one. Instead, he focuses on what he calls concerns about Kavanaugh’s temperament.
“So much that he realized and wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal talking about how he apologized for his conduct, that how his emotions got away with him – in effect, that’s what he said – and I thought, you know that’s not a good fit,” Donnelly says.
Still, Downs says a key factor in the race will be whether Republicans can capitalize on energy around the Kavanaugh vote.
“Whether that’s by getting people to the polls during early voting – the early days of early voting – or whether that’s by managing to maintain that energy through election night,” Downs says.
Democrats hope the issue that’s at the forefront of Hoosier voters’ minds isn’t Kavanaugh, but health care. They attack Braun for his support of efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and its protections for those with pre-existing conditions.
Braun is quick to point to the health insurance plan he set up years ago for his company.
“I will never be for anything that replaces Obamacare that doesn’t cover pre-existing conditions and no cap on coverage and I’ll be the only senator there that’s got something that’s worked in the real world,” Braun says.
But Donnelly says that’s been the Republican message for nearly a decade – and even with total control in Washington, the GOP still hasn’t gotten it done.
“I’m not willing to skip a day for that child who has asthma and needs an inhaler. I’m not willing to skip a day for that other person who has diabetes and needs their insulin,” Donnelly says. “It’s an empty promise that provides no coverage at the end of the day.”
Nearly every poll of the campaign shows it neck-and-neck between Donnelly and Braun. And most analysts expect it to stay that way through Election Day. So the real wild card in the race might not be Kavanaugh or Obamacare – but Libertarian Lucy Brenton.
“In order to move the liberty needle and to encourage the old parties to move us towards freedom, the second loser has to know that they lost because of me,” Brenton says. “They have to know that they lost because libertarian ideals and freedom are being demanded by the populace.”
Downs says Brenton could be a big factor, but it’s hard to predict which candidate she’d affect more.
“Based on what she has said, she has the potential to pull from both parties,” Downs says.
Whatever the issue that decides the race, it’ll play a role in which party controls the United States Senate.