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Lake County Advancement Committee Political Forum

From left, Brian Howey, publisher of Howey Politics Indiana; Andrew Downs, director of the Fort Wayne-based Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics; Dan Carden, of The Times; and Doug Ross, of The Times, Friday at the Lake County Advancement Committee's political forum.

When it comes to the 2018 election, the elephant in the room is President Donald Trump. 

Trump is sucking all the oxygen out of the room, as political analyst Brian Howey said Friday at a political affairs forum I moderated on behalf of the Lake County Advancement Committee.

So what effect is Trump having on the U.S. Senate race in Indiana that the whole nation is watching? Are his coattails incendiary or a red carpet?

That remains to be seen as far as the November result, but his impact on the Republican primary is strong.

You might not see the candidates' ads in Northwest Indiana, where downstate candidates don't seem to have figured out how to reach voters outside the Indianapolis orbit.

But the three panelists Friday have seen them. They agree the three GOP Senate candidates are trying to portray themselves as strong Trump supporters.

How close to Trump can a candidate get without being burned? Align yourself too closely to the controversial president in the May primary, and it might be difficult to attract moderate independents in the November election.

"How close can you get to Trump and then be able to run away from him in November to attract independent and moderate voters?" said Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Congressmen Todd Rokita and Luke Messer, along with Jasper businessman-turned-politician Mike Braun are all trying to pitch themselves as Trump Jr., Downs said.

"The differences are in style. A Rokita ad is very bellicose and taking on everybody in a way you would have seen Trump do last year and now," Downs said.

Messer is taking the high road, promoting a feel-good theme based on positives.

Braun is airing an ad that shows him carrying around two cardboard cutouts, one of Rokita and one of Messer.

Trump's 2016 campaign promised to "drain the swamp," getting supporters to chant, "Drain the swamp! Drain the swamp!" at Trump's campaign rallies. Rokita, a Munster native, and Messer have been in public office, and in Congress in particular, long enough to make voters wonder if they should be considered a political version of Swamp Thing.

But Downs points out the power of incumbency. Even in bad years for incumbents, the re-election rate for congressmen is about 80 percent. 

"I don't think the overall low rating of Congress will be bad for the two sitting members," Downs said.

In just a few weeks, we'll find out who will oppose the incumbent, Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, in the November election.

Donnelly is burnishing his bipartisan credentials and is clearly trying to win over moderate Republicans. During the video greeting he recorded for the World Civility Day dinner on Thursday, Donnelly noted he has voted for Trump's position more often than not.

Dan Carden, The Times' Statehouse bureau chief, also was on the panel Friday.

"I don't know who turns up in this primary to vote," he said. "The 2016 race, there was a 19-point advantage for Trump in Indiana. That was a lot of blue-collar Democrats crossing over and voting for Trump and then Democrats in other races. Are they going to show up in a Republican primary in an off year?" he wondered.

"What does the Republican Party stand for now? Is it the party of Trump, or the party of Eric Holcomb and Todd Young? It is kind of a referendum of what Indiana Republican politics is going to be going forward," Carden said.

For years now, that has been the struggle for Republicans — to figure out who and what defines their party. 

Will it be Trump, whose acerbic style has kept him in the headlines and been so divisive, or will it be people like Gov. Eric Holcomb, whose pragmatic style has made him popular with independents and even many Democrats?

Once again, we'll see what the voters say and try to figure out trends based on the outcome of this year's elections.

Senior Reporter Doug Ross can be reached at (219) 548-4360 or Doug.Ross@nwi.com. Follow him at www.facebook.com/doug.ross1 and on Twitter @nwi_DougRoss. The opinions are the writer's.

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Porter/LaPorte County Editor

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.