AVON, Indiana — The Indiana Senate race is one of the closest midterm elections in the country, and like the other close races, it’s been nationalized. Instead of a contest between two distinct candidates from opposing parties, the election has become a referendum of sorts on President Trump’s first two years in office.
But this is Indiana, so it’s a strange, non-binary kind of referendum. Trump carried the state by 19 points and remains hugely popular here. Strange as it might be to see a Democrat in 2018 bragging about being aligned with Trump, that’s exactly what Democratic incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly is doing.
One Donnelly campaign ad boasts that he voted with Trump’s party “62 percent of the time,” and another recent ad slams “the radical left” for trying to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, slams “socialists” for supporting government-run health care, calls for funding Trump’s border wall, and closes with Donnelly quoting Ronald Reagan. This is what the Resistance amounts to in Indiana.
The plain political reality is that if Donnelly, who has a slight lead in the polls, wants to stay in office, he’ll need Hoosiers who voted for Trump in 2016 to support him—or at least convince them not to vote for his Republican challenger, Mike Braun.
Braun has made a concerted efforts to cast himself as the Hoosier version of Trump: a successful businessman and political outsider not beholden to special interests and ready to work in lock-step with the administration. Braun distinguished himself in the GOP primary with a clever ad mocking his opponents, both of them Republican congressmen, as indistinguishable Washington politicians. (In the ad, Braun walks around with actual cardboard cutouts of Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, who actually do look a lot alike, asking passersby if they can tell who’s who, and of course no one can.)
Both candidates have attacked each other for outsourcing jobs. Braun calls Donnelly “Mexico Joe” and Donnelly claims Braun outsourced manufacturing to China. It’s all heavy-handed channeling of Trump, which could be a serious problem for Braun if pro-Trump Hoosiers aren’t sufficiently motivated to show up at the ballot box.
Indianapolis attorney and political pundit Abdul-Hakim Shabazz told me that “Braun is trying to get Trump voters to vote for him, Donnelly is trying to get Trump voters not to vote against him.” Hence the Twilight Zone scenario in Indiana’s Senate race, in which both candidates see Trump as an asset at a time of dramatic political polarization in the rest of the country.
Braun’s Base Is Fired Up, But Is It Enough?
Braun can at least count on the support of a motivated and organized core of grassroots activists, many of them veterans of the state’s erstwhile tea party groups. In 2012, the tea parties unwittingly helped put Donnelly in office by pushing to unseat six-term incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Luger in the GOP primary and elect State Treasurer Richard Mourdock as their candidate. When Mourdock, who had been favored to win, made his infamous rape remark—that a pregnancy resulting from rape is “something that God intended to happen”—his poll numbers plunged and Donnelly coasted to victory.
The feeling among one-time tea party activists, many of whom are now local Republican officials or officeholders of one sort or another, is that Donnelly’s election was a fluke, that Luger’s seat never should have gone to a Democrat, and now it’s time to set it right. Add to that a simmering anger over Senate Democrats’ treatment of Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and you have a highly motivated core of Braun supporters.
About 75 of them showed up to a monthly meeting of Republican precinct committee members in Washington Township, a suburb just west of Indianapolis, where the Senate race loomed large in conversations over an early breakfast at the local American Legion outpost. Everyone there was fired up about the prospect of “kicking Joe to the curb,” as one man put it.
State Treasurer Kelly Mitchell was featured speaker, and over breakfast she told me that Braun’s outsider image isn’t a gimmick. “He’s actually a normal, non-political guy. I see him all the time on the campaign trail, and he’s a genuine and sincere guy.” Mitchell adds that she thinks Indiana voters are tuned in to what’s happening nationally and are especially motivated to vote this year.
Indiana Isn’t Really Red, It’s ‘Deep Burgundy’
That’s the same line I get from Corrine Youngs, a 30-year-old attorney and vice chair of the Hendricks County Young Republicans. Youngs estimates she’s made more than 1,000 phone calls so far this election cycle and talked to hundreds of voters. “The people who are pro-Trump are extremely fired up,” she says, noting that Hendricks County is a deep-red part of what Hoosiers call “the donut,” the suburban and exurban counties surrounding Indianapolis that every successful statewide candidate must win.
Greg Irby, the vice chairman of the Hendricks County Republicans, chimes to note that, although Trump voters are motivated, “everyone is still in the same camp as they were two years ago.”
That might turn out to be a problem for Braun. Arguably a more pressing question than base-voter turnout is how many cross-over voters will show up at the polls. After all, Indiana isn’t as red as it looks on paper, with its Republican governor and legislature, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that some moderate Republicans will vote for Donnelly. Hoosiers narrowly went for Obama in 2008, and twice sent Democrat Evan Bayh to the U.S. Senate (Bayh retired from the Senate in 2011 and lost a 2016 bid to take back his old seat). As Shabazz put it to me, “Indiana isn’t really red, it’s deep burgundy.”
Still, among GOP activists anger at Democrats over the Kavanaugh circus is palpable. As I leave the meeting at American Legion, I’m stopped by a white-haired man with fiery eyes named Allen Yackey. He says he’s a Vietnam veteran, and that Democrats’ behavior during and after the Kavanaugh hearings gave him flashbacks to his return from Vietnam in 1968: “People calling us baby-killers, spitting on us, assuming we were guilty of war crimes—without any proof.” Because of that, Yackey is voting a straight Republican ticket for the first time in his life. “The Democrats,” he says, “have got to go.”
If you talk to enough Republican grassroots activists in Indiana, you’ll hear a lot of such talk and become convinced that a red wave is about to wash over the state and sweep Donnelly out of office.
But when you talk to ordinary non-activist Hoosiers, things get more complicated. One young man I met at a Starbucks in Carmel, a northern suburb of Indianapolis, seemed at first glance to be just the type who would support Trump and Braun, but he isn’t.
Taylor Sutton, a 33-year-old youth pastor at a nearby evangelical church, was huddled over a Hebrew-language Old Testament and a pile of lexicons when we met. He told me he’s voting for Donnelly because he wants to “send a message” to the Republicans that cozying up to Trump isn’t going to win his vote.
“Trump crossed some lines,” says Sutton, “and I don’t think it helps to reward that.” He adds that he doesn’t think evangelicals should be as reliable a GOP voting bloc as they’ve become. Sutton voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 as a protest of Trump—the first time he’s ever voted for a Democrat in a presidential election. Voting for Donnelly will be easier, he says, because he’s that rare thing in politics today: a pro-life Democrat.