Indiana prides itself on its free-thinking, common-sense approach to politics, but the U.S. Senate race there is testing just how strong that independent streak is.
Incumbent Democrat Sen. Joe Donnelly is betting his reelection on the message that he embodies that traditional Hoosier value and that Republican challenger Mike Braun has too closely aligned himself with President Trump.
“I told people I’d be bipartisan. I have been,” Donnelly told me over the summer.
But the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh supercharged an already hyperpartisan environment, firing up voters on the right.
Donnelly might win or lose based on how many Republican or conservative Democratic men in the state decide they hate polarization — or Trump — more than they may have been turned off by Senate Democrats during the Kavanaugh hearings.
That bloc of generally conservative male voters could join with reliable Democratic voters — notably college-educated women repulsed by Trump — to potentially put Donnelly over the edge in an overwhelmingly conservative state.
But polls show Braun gaining steam in the final two weeks. The race — one of the key contests that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate — has always been close and was always going to be a nail-biter. But Braun has edged ahead in two recent polls, though one was conducted by his own campaign.
Republicans have pulled even in TV advertising this fall after being outspent over the summer. That’s a reason for the race to have tightened after many saw Donnelly in the driver’s seat for months. If Braun has an edge now, some think the Kavanaugh hearings are a big reason, along with Donnelly’s decision to vote against Trump’s nominee to the high court.
Mike Murphy, a former Republican state legislator, told Yahoo News he has seen significant backlash in Indiana to the Kavanaugh hearings. The commonly held view is that the initial allegation of sexual assault during Kavanaugh’s high school days was credible and should have been investigated, Murphy said, but that it was then followed by more dubious claims of misconduct from other women, which were picked up by Democratic senators, interest groups, and publicity chasers, creating a media circus.
“People who don’t like Trump are going to vote for Braun anyhow because they were so disgusted with the Democratic strategy,” Murphy said. “There is definitely a lot of sentiment among informed but not professional people — people at the county level who like to track this stuff — [who] say, ‘I don’t like Trump, but these Kavanaugh tactics from the left infuriate me.’”
And Murphy said that the state’s booming economy and low unemployment rate have blunted the impact of Democratic attacks on Braun’s support for a Justice Department lawsuit that would remove protections for people with preexisting conditions from health insurance denials or premium increases.
Democrats disagree on the issues front and say health care continues to be an asset for them. But they also think there are enough Indiana men left who see voting across party lines as an expression of their own independence.
“Donnelly provides a credible way for them to be able to demonstrate that about themselves,” Scott Pelath, a state legislator who was House minority leader for the Democrats from 2012 to 2017, said in an interview.
Donnelly, 63, served six years in the House before being elected to his first term in the U.S. Senate in 2012. He has carved out a reputation for working hard on issues that affect all Hoosiers. But he’s had to shout a little louder of late to show that he’s not a typical Democrat. In a recent ad, he denounced “radical leftists,” called for the government to build a border wall like the one Trump campaigned on in 2016, and quoted Republican icon Ronald Reagan.
Braun, meanwhile, is running with a two-pronged message that he’ll be a reliable backer of Trump’s agenda and that his business background – he made a fortune from an auto parts company — is needed in the Senate.
Pelath said that even though Trump won Indiana by 19 points in 2016, there are still plenty of the male voters Donnelly needs “who like to view themselves as independents and as ticket-splitters.”
These voters tend to be white males who are not wealthy but are “proud to earn enough to not stress about every month’s bills,” Pelath said. Describing such a voter, he said: “Probably has a mortgage. Might have a college degree, might not. Probably lives in one of the numerous smaller cities that’s been struggling to keep population. Sees enough of society’s competing interests that he can’t be so strident in his views. Might not prefer rapid changes in society, but has some willingness to understand them.”
Donnelly also is committed to showing up in person to as many community and political events around Indiana as he can, which has endeared him to many voters.
“There’s no question in Democratic ranks that he can pull this off,” Pelath said. “There’s a huge group in the middle who don’t like this hyperpartisanship.”
Maybe that’s true. But the result on Nov. 6 will indicate whether the Hoosier State’s iconoclastic way is being swallowed up by the us-vs.-them mentality that is endemic to our time.
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