Hoosier voters face a great choice in the U.S. Senate race between Democrat incumbent Joe Donnelly and Republican Mike Braun. The two coursed through the City of Firsts this past week, Braun speaking to Rotarians at a country club while Sen. Donnelly worked a UAW hall.
These were late summer ramblings in a race that could determine control of the U.S. Senate, with future Supreme Court nominees and President Trump’s agenda, or, possibly, the fate of his presidency, hanging in the balance.
This race is a toss-up in the estimation of Howey Politics Indiana, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales. At least $100 million are expected to spill in. Braun told me $10 million apiece will be spent by the two campaigns, with at least another $35 million to $40 million coming from Super PACs and advocacy groups.
“If he can re-create the outsider vs. politician narrative along partisan lines, Braun will be in good shape,” wrote Gonzales. “But if it’s a personality contest, Donnelly should win re-election.”
Braun’s pitch was that he went to the General Assembly and worked on big things as a freshman. “I passed a bill because in my area, we had bad road infrastructure. I had the idea that rather than relying on Indianapolis, we’re going to try and initiate our own road funds,” Braun said.
The Jasper businessman was told by leaders that it might take two or three years. “I didn’t have the patience to wait two to three years,” Braun said. “Don’t always ask something to be done for you. Put your own skin in the game, initiate, and control your own destiny as the result of it. We got that thing through, Sen. (Mark) Messmer and I, in one year. We were told to do it in one chamber, not both. We respectfully listened, and then did it in both.
“I’m doing this,” Braun said of this race, “just like I went there, with the focus and purpose. I don’t believe we send the cream of the crop to Washington, D.C. I think we send people there who talk a big game, go there, and end up making a career in politics. The Founders never intended it to be that way.”
Donnelly’s pitch to the UAW came, literally, with a story of family “skin in the game,” a line Braun often uses.
“I have two Jeeps,” the senator said. “My daughter was heading off when she was a senior in high school to go watch a movie with friends. I was half asleep on a Friday night when she said, ‘I’m heading out, Dad.’ We had a compact car, but I looked up and said, ‘Take the Jeep. I’d feel much safer if you took the Jeep.’ It was Good Friday. I get a phone call about two hours later and it was my daughter. She had been hit head-on by a drunk driver. The airbags went off, the car was crumpled. The policeman said, ‘It’s a miracle your daughter wasn’t killed.’ It was a miracle, but it was also a Jeep Grand Cherokee that you made, you built. Every time I see her, I think of Rick Ward.”
Ward is the president of UAW Local 685. “As long as I’m a United States senator,” Donnelly said, “I’m going to fight for you.”
Then-Rep. Donnelly played a big advocacy role with President Obama in 2009. Running for re-election in 2010, he found some UAW workers at the Chrysler plant gate wouldn’t look him in the eye. Some would vote Republican on the issue of guns or abortion. “One guy at the gate said, ‘I love you, Joe, I’m not voting for ya, but I love ya.’” Donnelly laughed. “And I said, ‘This could be a rough Tuesday.’” But he narrowly fended off state Rep. Jackie Walorski, and then in his upset Senate race against Treasurer Richard Mourdock two years later, he carried in the automaking 5th Congressional District.
Braun’s pitch to voters is with a business-like, matter-of-fact and status-quo challenging demeanor, with the tenor of a curmudgeon. He explains things well. Donnelly brings more emotion into his pitch, constantly reminding his audience and reporters that “my job” is to work for 6.5 million Hoosier bosses. He bends the normal arc for a Democrat. He’s pro-life, voted for Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, and he’d vote for President Trump’s wall funding. “I’m fine with providing him some more,” Donnelly told Politico.
His appeal to this small group of autoworkers was that he was there for them in 2008 and 2009. “I’ll never forget coming to this union hall when the treasurer of Indiana tried to get Chrysler liquidated,” Donnelly said of Mourdock.
The Chrysler transmission plants in Kokomo had employed 5,000 people when the auto collapse approached in 2008 and 2009. It shrank to 100 as President Obama forced the restructuring, allowing Fiat to absorb Chrysler. Today, there are 9,000 Hoosiers working there. “I told Mayor (Greg) Goodnight, Plan A is to try and get everybody back to work,” Donnelly said. “Plan B is to go to church and pray that Plan A works.”
Hoosier voters have a great choice in this race, a Plan A and a Plan B.