Joe Donnelly has two strikes against him. He’s a politician, first of all, and everybody knows that nothing good comes from Washington. (Yes this is sarcasm.) And he’s a Democrat from Indiana, which is a very conservative state.
And yet, everybody talks about how nice a guy he is, how everybody likes him. It’s hard to find anybody who will say a bad word about him personally, even Republican operatives who call to talk about the race off the record.
Still, the 62-year-old first-term U.S. senator is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country in this fall’s election, because the old playbook for getting reelected isn’t enough.
“Just do the work,” is what Donnelly’s father always told him. Donnelly’s dad was a small business owner on Long Island whose wife, Donnelly’s mother, died when Joe was 10.
And Donnelly’s ethos — hard work, common sense, bipartisan compromise, disdain for grandstanding — is right in line with Hoosier values.
But even before Donald Trump, national politics was overtaking state and regional issues, and the definition of success for a senator had shifted away from working with others to solve problems and toward building notoriety, getting on cable TV through bombast and social media cleverness.
Donnelly understands the distinction.
“I still think what makes you an actual successful senator is the same,” he notes in an interview, with an emphasis on “actual.”
Success is, he says, “making the lives of people in our state better, making the lives of people in our country better.”
But as Yuval Levin, one of the most incisive observers of modern politics, said in a recent series of lectures at Princeton University, “Many members of Congress have come to view the institution as a kind of platform for themselves — a way to raise their profile, to become celebrities in the world of cable news or talk radio, and in essence to perform.”
Or as Jack Colwell, a longtime columnist for the South Bend Tribune put it to me, “He who does not toot his own horn may have his horn untooted.”
And Donnelly is not a horn-tooter. He is a mere horn-player. That used to be something voters valued and rewarded.
But in the modern age, can a U.S. senator who likes to keep his head down and go about his business stand out enough to be noticed above the cacophony of national politics and Trumpism, the clanging cymbal that threatens to drown everything else out?
Donnelly’s history suggests he lacks a burning ambition to be in the public spotlight.
Around age 30, while he was practicing law in South Bend, he ran for office twice. In 1988, he sought the Democratic nomination for attorney general in Indiana but came up short at the state convention. Two years later, he ran for state Senate and lost to Republican Joe Zakas.
And then he dropped off the map.
“He disappeared for about 10 years, frankly. Everybody just remembered him as the guy who ran and lost to Joe Zakas for the state Senate,” said Mike Murphy, a Republican elected as a state representative in 1994. “We just kind of remembered him as a guy who lost: not a bad guy, just a guy who lost.”
Incidentally, there was another Hoosier who ran for office in 1988 and 1990 and lost both times, and then was out of politics for a decade. His name was Mike Pence, who ran for Congress unsuccessfully and then spent 10 years building his statewide brand through a talk radio career. He finally got elected to Congress in 2000. He’s now vice president of the United States, of course.
Donnelly, however, went back to practicing law and coaching his two kids’ sports teams. In fact, a year or two after his 1990 loss, one of the kids on his Little League baseball team was the son of Joe Zakas, his former opponent. Donnelly said he put his arm around the kid, looked him in the eye and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get all the playing time you deserve.”
“He was great with my kids. He’s always seemed to be very friendly toward me,” Zakas confirmed.
Born and raised on Long Island, Donnelly had attended Notre Dame and never left Indiana. He was a “Double Domer” as well, with a law degree from the same university.
He spent most of the ’90s working in his family’s ink and stamp company, practicing law and coaching his kids’ sports teams, and he spent a few years on the school board of the local Catholic school.
After more than a decade out of politics, Donnelly didn’t think he’d run for office again, he said. In late 2003, however, a local party official named Butch Walker called Donnelly’s home and left a message.
“I was out fishing,” Donnelly said. “I actually thought they were calling for a contribution to somebody.” But Walker said he and other Democrats wanted Donnelly to run for Congress, the senator said. Walker did not return phone calls seeking to verify this story.
And in 2004, a presidential election year with George W. Bush on the ballot, Donnelly was being recruited not so much to win as to put up a semi-competitive fight against Republican Chris Chocola, a corporate lawyer and CEO.
Said Colwell of Donnelly: “I thought, ‘I don’t think he’s going to win but he will run a respectable race,’ and he did. I think that’s what [Democratic leaders] wanted. There’s a danger when a member of Congress seems to be so entrenched that the other party will end up with some nut. I thought, ‘He’s not going to embarrass the party or hurt the rest of the ticket.’ I didn’t think he would win. I didn’t see how he could.”
Nonetheless, Donnelly took the request to run quite seriously. “My thought process was, ‘Let me think about it because it’s a big obligation. If we’re going to try to do this, I want to do it right. We’re not just going to do it just to do it,’” he said.
And despite having no financial support from the national party, Donnelly campaigned doggedly. “I went to every county, to every town, to every fair,” he said.
In 2006, circumstances had changed. The U.S. occupation of Iraq had gone horribly wrong, Bush’s approval rating had plummeted, and Democrats had a wave election coming. National money poured in on Donnelly’s behalf, and finally, he won an election.
His election to the Senate in 2012 was equally fortuitous. Donnelly’s district in northern Indiana was redrawn by the Republican legislature after the 2010 census to include more Republican voters, and so rather than face almost certain defeat there, Donnelly decided he might as well run for Senate against an aging Richard Lugar, a Republican who had lost a step or two after 36 years in the Senate.
And then, after Lugar was defeated in the Republican primary by Tea Party challenger Richard Mourdock, Mourdock sabotaged his own candidacy with comments weeks before the election about how pregnancies caused by rape are “something that God intended.”
In his first term in the Senate, Donnelly has been a quiet member, focused on issues that matter to Indiana voters of both parties: mental health care and suicide prevention for military veterans, and combatting the opioids epidemic. But he has not made many headlines, even for a freshman who soon found himself a member of the minority party.
“If you run under the surface so to speak, you avoid risk, but then you also risk not being known for what you’re doing,” Murphy said. “I think it’s his nature. He’s not bombastic by any means. And there’s probably some staff advice in there too. He’s just not been terribly visible.”
Donnelly still believes he can grind out a win. “If I work really, really hard, I can outwork someone. And people are gonna notice and see that,” Donnelly told me.
Perhaps. But in the current environment, in a conservative state like Indiana that Trump won by 19 points in 2016, it also helps to be seen with Trump.
So it was a coup when Donnelly scored an invite to the White House in late May for a ceremony in which Trump signed a bill that Donnelly had worked on with Republican Ron Johnson, R-Wis. And when Trump personally thanked Donnelly during the ceremony, Republican operatives working for his opponent, wealthy businessman and former state legislator Mike Braun, might have thrown objects at their TV.
“I also want to thank Sen. Donnelly. Sen. Donnelly, that’s really great. Appreciate it. Thank you,” Trump said while signing Right to Try Act, which make it easier for terminally ill patients to seek access to experimental medications not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Donnelly subtly acknowledged that the event was a political gift to him, especially coming just weeks after Trump campaigned in Indiana for Braun and criticized Donnelly during the event. “I was glad to be there. I was happy to be there,” Donnelly said with a slight smirk.
The Democrat’s alliance with Johnson, which helped ensure his presence at the White House, is the product of a friendship they have maintained despite pressure from both their parties.
“I knew I could tell him, ‘Look, here’s what I think is gonna happen over on the Democrat side.’ And he’d say, ‘Here’s what I think is gonna happen on the Republican side. There’s a stumbling block here, or there’s a stumbling block here, how do we get through it?’” Donnelly said. “I told people I’d be bipartisan; I have been.”
And that is the kind of thing that normally plays well in Indiana.
“Hoosiers don’t just want somebody that is just going to vote for the Republican Party all the time. They want somebody like a Donnelly who is going to bring people together, get legislation passed, and help them with jobs and the opioid crisis, not somebody who is going to robotically support one party,” said Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who was President Barack Obama’s first ambassador to India.
Donnelly has in fact voted with Trump about 55 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight’s score. But when a reporter asked Braun about Donnelly’s better-than-50 percent record of voting with the president (it was 62 percent at the time), Braun hit Donnelly for insufficient loyalty to Trump.
“Your implication is that’s a very high percentage, and that’s not very good,” Braun told Adam Wren, who writes the Indiana-based Importantville newsletter.
That position worked in South Carolina recently, where incumbent congressman Mark Sanford voted with Trump 72 percent of the time but was ousted in a Republican primary because he had been a public critic of Trump. But Donnelly is not Sanford, who had a lurid extramarital affair during his term as governor that has continued to haunt him.
The Republican attacks on Donnelly will likely be two-pronged, hitting him for voting against the Republican tax cut bill passed late last year and trying to use his family business history against him.
Donnelly was listed as vice president and general counsel in 2001 when his family’s company, Superior Marketing Equipment Co., was saddled with an IRS lien for unpaid payroll taxes. His brother, Jack, told reporters in 2006 that Joe had no involvement in the business past 1997, when Joe started his own ink and stamp company, Marking Solutions Inc.
But just last year the Associated Press reported that Donnelly still owned shares of his family’s business, and that the company — now named Stewart Superior Corp. — was using low-wage Mexican workers to manufacture its products. Outsourcing angers many Indiana voters, and Donnelly promptly sold his shares, estimated by his campaign to be worth $17,410, and donated the proceeds to charity.
Multiple Indiana political observers told me they think the labor practices of the Donnelly family business will be an issue but not a decisive one, since Republican nominee Mike Braun made millions from his ownership of a company that has distributed auto parts made overseas. “I think it will be a wash,” Murphy said.
But the Senate Leadership Fund, an outside group aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has already released an ad on the issue, labeling Donnelly “Mexico Joe.”
Donnelly and outside Democratic groups will focus on a pattern of lawsuits against Braun’s company, Meyer Distributing, by employees alleging unsafe working conditions. The company was hit with 26 Department of Labor violations between 2008 and 2010 for wage and overtime pay violations. Braun’s campaign insists conditions at the company are better than the industry average.
And Braun also served a few years in the Indiana legislature. He will come under criticism for pushing legislation that benefitted the timber industry in the state. Braun owns 5,000 acres of timberland valued at between $5 and $30 million. He says the legislation did not have a “direct” or “substantial” impact on his income.
“[Braun’s] strengths are that he’s truly an outsider,” Murphy added. “He is a self-made millionaire from Jasper, the most Germanic settlement in Indiana of any size.”
Murphy said that Braun’s hometown gives him a credibility with Indiana voters who value self-reliance. “Nobody doesn’t work [in Jasper]. Nobody sits on their ass. You work. It’s a Germanic work ethic,” Murphy said.
As for his vote on the tax cut bill, Donnelly told me defiantly that not many voters had brought it up with him. But he said if they wanted to discuss it he would “have the discussion every day in every town, everywhere I go.”
But on other national issues, such as guns and immigration, Donnelly is treading a fine line. When I asked him about whether the school safety commission organized by the Trump administration should consider gun violence – so far it has not – he insisted that they must. “I don’t know how you can discuss school safety without this being a huge part of the discussion,” Donnelly said.
“We’ve gotta get this right,” he said, hitting the table with his hand. “This is what is on every parent’s mind. And there are basic things we can do. There’s not like this silver bullet, or that silver bullet.”
“But … you add the background checks, and you add maybe designing schools better, and you add better training, and all of a sudden, you’re in a better situation,” he said. “And I don’t think you can have a discussion on school safety without discussing how do we solve this problem.”
But when I asked him whether he supported Indiana’s statewide statute forbidding localities from passing their own area-specific provisions to prevent gun violence, Donnelly claimed ignorance.
“I haven’t even looked at that legislation to be honest with you,” he said. “I’m usually in favor of as much as you can, keeping it as local as you possibly can. So on the federal level I try to make it so that we allow the states to do as much as they possibly can. So I’d have to look at it.”
And on immigration, he signed on to a bill supported by all 49 Democrats in the Senate to end the Trump administration’s policy that has resulted in the forcible separation of thousands of undocumented immigrant children from their parents.
Donnelly tried to balance the conservative views of his constituents with a call for humanity. “While people trying to enter our country illegally should be held accountable and our immigration laws should be enforced, my faith has taught me that our policies should also reflect our values, and I believe that the Administration’s new policy that separates families, including separating babies and young children from their parents, is wrong and not consistent with out shared American values,” he said in a statement.
Donnelly is a Catholic, and the Catholic bishops have been outspoken in calling for a more tolerant approach to immigration. Braun is also Catholic, but he stuck to the Trump administration’s line (until Wednesday) that Congress needs to act but the White House does not need to change its recently enacted policy.
All of these things — the tax bill, guns and immigration — illustrate the challenge for Donnelly. He will have to grapple with national issues in a way that neutralizes them and emphasizes his middle-of-the-road appeal, as a way of circling back to a message and brand that appeals to Democratic and Republican voters in the state.
Yet ultimately, Trump’s popularity come November will likely do more to determine Donnelly’s fate than he would like to admit.
“The perfect storm would be a very popular President Trump with a national issue kind of overtaking local Indiana-based issues,” said Jeff Harris, a Democrat who has worked on numerous gubernatorial campaigns. “When Obama carried Indiana you saw people who hadn’t voted in generations come out and vote. Same thing in the reverse for Trump.”
But somewhat like the 2004 race, Donnelly is going to put himself in position to win even if it turns out he can’t. It’s the kind of approach that had him fielding ground balls at 6:40 a.m. on a recent weekday morning in Washington, getting ready for the congressional baseball game. He was moved a few years ago from outfield to first base to make room for speedier legs that can cover more ground. He knew he might not field the position perfectly, but he didn’t want it to be because he was unprepared.
“I might miss one in the game but it won’t be because I didn’t field 300 grounders in practice,” he said.
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