Eyes on 2018: Indiana Senate Race

Perhaps no state has swung further to the right in the past decade than Indiana. President Obama won the state in 2008, then lost it by over 10 percent in 2012. In 2016, President Trump won Indiana by almost 20 percent. Given this rapid swing, any Indiana Democrats up for re-election should be afraid. Joe Donnelly is no exception.

The Picture:

This seat is currently a Toss Up. While incumbents always hold some structural advantages, Joe Donnelly is up for re-election in a state that has recently become a Republican stronghold.

He also barely won election in the first place. His Republican opponent, Richard Mourdock, was considered the favorite as late as mid-October, and were it not for a gaffe at an October 23 debate, he very likely would have won. Trying to defend his anti-abortion position, which he held even in cases of rape, he explained, “Life is a gift from God […] and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” Mourdock faced swift backlash, and Donnelly coasted to a 5.7 percent victory. That margin may not seem like much, but it represented a performance about 16 percent stronger than President Obama’s.

It is extremely unlikely that Donnelly can rely on another gaffe like that one to win this time around. The 2012 election cycle was notable for how many anti-establishment Tea Party Republicans pulled off upset victories in the primaries. Many lost to Democrats that almost anyone else could have beaten. In fact, Todd Akin’s 2012 loss in Missouri followed almost the exact same progression, with Akin making similarly offensive comments in a TV interview. Against a halfway decent opponent, Donnelly is quite vulnerable.

Joe Donnelly is a moderate Democrat who is according to the Lugar Center the nation’s second most bipartisan Senator. Donnelly has focused his campaign almost solely on inoffensive issues like education access and veteran benefits. That’s very much been his strategy throughout his career, and it’s worked well for him thus far.

He has a mixed record on immigration. On one hand, he voted to defund sanctuary cities and opposed the DREAM Act. On the other, he spoke out against Trump’s travel ban and supports comprehensive immigration reform. His politics on issues like abortion, energy, and foreign policy are similarly hard to pin down. He has an A rating from the NRA, yet lists union workers among his most ardent supporters. And his net approval rating of 14 percent is impressive, though it’s unclear if that’ll be enough.

The GOP primary to determine Donnelly’s challenger is hotly contested. The three remaining candidates are Former State Rep. Mike Braun, Rep. Luke Messer, and Rep. Todd Rokita.

Braun is a proud political neophyte who spent much of his career in the private sector. His website’s issues section lists “Protecting the Second Amendment” first, followed by “Creating Jobs” and “Drain [sic] the Swamp.” Advocating for term limits and trashing career politicians, he’s betting that channeling President Trump can help him achieve an upset. Unfortunately for him, Rokita is putting on a similar act, and his seems to be going better.

Messer is the most moderate and establishment of the three, elected to the Indiana House in 2003. He left that role to work as a lobbyist at Ice Miller LLP for 6 years, then ran for Congress. In that role, he worked to improve transparency around student loans. He even supported a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Since being elected to Congress, he has moved to D.C., and his top source of campaign contributions has been Ice Miller, his former employer. Though he is the fifth-ranking Republican in the House, he may be too establishment for Indiana. His path to the nomination requires Braun and Rokita acting as spoilers for each other.

Rokita is the current frontrunner, with an internal poll from January showing him with a substantial lead but with over half of voters undecided. The methodology is questionable, and two months is a long time to come back, but it’s the only recent publicly-available poll of the race.

Congressman Rokita has positioned himself as the conservative anti-establishment candidate, Messer’s perfect foil. And while Braun has sought to place himself in the same category, Rokita has viciously attacked him for voting Democrat prior to 2012, attacks which seem to have landed. He has taken a hardline stance on immigration since his election to the House in 2010, a contrast which he often draws to Messer’s more moderate history.

Where the Race Stands:

The Republican primary is sure to be vicious, with a recent debate providing a good sense of what is to come. Rokita was frequently on the attack, but his opponents weren’t shy to fight back. Rokita attacked Braun for voting to raise taxes, and he attacked Messer for voting for a $320 billion spending deal. Messer defended the vote by explaining that it was what President Trump wanted, as it increased military spending.

As in many other states, the primary appears to be a race to the right, with even the more moderate Messer emphasizing his conservative credentials. All three seek to make cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. All three emphasize the need to repeal Obamacare, portraying Donnelly as a roadblock on the path to that repeal. And all three downplay acts of compromise and bipartisanship from their past.

While Braun had raised the most money by the end of 2017, this race is about more than just money. In a race which seems to be about proving loyalty to Trump, Rokita has the strongest record. While Messer and Braun try to portray themselves as anti-establishment conservatives, Rokita genuinely is one. Messer’s move to D.C. and Braun’s past Democratic Party loyalties are liabilities, and Rokita seems prepared to capitalize on them. In a state that overwhelmingly backed Trump, the most Trump-like of the candidates should be the favorite. For Rokita, a Trump endorsement would be huge, but even without one, he’s the man to beat.

It’s more difficult to get a clear picture of the general election in the absence of any polling. Nonetheless, both sides do have clear advantages.

One advantage for Donnelly is money: while Q1 2018 numbers have yet to be released, he had raised more money than all three of his Republican challengers combined by the end of 2017, ending the year with over $5 million in cash on hand. Incumbents always hold fundraising advantages, though Rokita is already playing Trump’s game of coasting on free media coverage as he viciously attacks his opponents. As a result, he would be the most easily able to overcome a fundraising deficit.

Another advantage for Donnelly is his high approval rating. It is, after all, quite unusual for popular incumbents to be voted out. At the same time, though, it’s unusual in today’s political environment to overperform a presidential candidate by 20 percent.

Indeed, Republicans’ biggest advantage in this race is the fact that it’s happening in Indiana. It’s Mike Pence’s home state and demographically perfect for Trump loyalists to perform well in. The state isn’t particularly diverse, as about 80 percent of Hoosiers are non-Hispanic White. Indiana is also the quintessential rust belt state, the embodiment of a part of the country where Trump seems to have a stronghold. And the declining strength of unions in the state will no doubt hurt Democratic mobilization efforts.

Key issues in this race will likely be guns, Obamacare, taxes and jobs, and immigration.

While Donnelly has a strong pro-gun record, he supported Manchin-Toomey, which would have mandated background checks for all gun purchases. On this vote, he broke with four other red-state Democrats who opposed the bill. And while most Americans support background checks, gun-rights advocates are more likely to see guns as a wedge issue than those who support increased gun control.

All three Republican candidates have attacked Donnelly for his support of Obamacare. While President Obama’s landmark healthcare law is more popular than ever, Republicans’ efforts to limit its expansion have proven especially effective in Indiana, making the issue more of a toss-up. Though the issue will no doubt be important, it is at this point unclear which side holds the advantage.

All four candidates (Donnelly included) have supported protectionist policies, so neither side holds a clear advantage there.

On taxes, Republicans are doing better. Though initially unpopular, the GOP tax bill has gained support recently. In solid red Indiana, it seems especially likely that a majority of voters would support it. Donnelly opposed the bill, while all three Republicans supported it. Nonetheless, if Messer or Braun secure the nomination, it is unlikely they could gain much offense on this issue. That’s because Rokita has harshly attacked them on taxes. At a recent debate, he even said that “if you nominate [Messer or Braun], Joe Donnelly will be the tax cutter in the race.”

On immigration, Donnelly is actually quite well-positioned. He’s supported increased border funding while supporting a solution to the DACA issue. This middle ground seems to be the area in which most Americans fall, and it will be hard to portray him as a liberal Democrat on the issue. And while it is possible Republicans will mount a highly racialized campaign against Donnelly akin to Gillespie’s in Virginia, doing so will prove difficult because of just how moderate Donnelly’s immigration record really is. In fact, Donnelly’s record here is almost identical to Messer’s.

Against Rokita, Donnelly is looking at a toss-up race, as he’s the man best positioned to act as a Trump surrogate in firm Trump territory.

Against Messer, he probably has the most narrow of advantages, as Rokita’s attacks will likely dampen enthusiasm and drawing distinctions between himself and Donnelly will be rather difficult. In the absence of a sharp contrast, voters may default to what they know.

Braun will be the easiest opponent for him to defeat. He has all the liabilities of Rokita — extreme right views that may boost Democratic turnout and drive moderates to Donnelly — but without the ideological purity. He will likely face attacks from both sides and would emerge from the primary badly beaten.

Whatever happens, Indiana will be a race to watch. Along with Missouri and California, it will also likely be one of the most vicious.



WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Fundraising numbers, real polls, Republican primary, endorsements

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