It was a familiar exercise for the first-term senator, this shimmy. An incumbent Democrat in a state Donald Trump won by 19 points, Donnelly is constantly dogged by Republicans aiming to unseat him when he runs for reelection next November, including House Republicans Todd Rokita and Luke Messer. An America Rising tracker who identified himself to me only as Randy literally stalks Donnelly’s in-state events, lying in wait for a gaffe. On the other side, Donnelly faces disgruntled Democrats who think he’s far too conservative. A fiscal and military hawk who shares the president’s views on trade, Donnelly is the nation’s second most moderate senator, according to an April study released by the Lugar Center and the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. That means he’s a more finely tuned weathervane than any poll or political pundit, a one-man focus group. So if you want to know which way the political winds are blowing—who’s going to triumph in the upcoming midterms, and perhaps beyond—you need to watch Joe Donnelly.
In recent months, Donnelly has taken his fair share of lessons in navigating narrow political spaces. Since Trump assumed office, Donnelly has cast a series of votes that have put him at odds with his own party. He voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch—one of three Democrats to do so, angering Democrats back home. “The Gorsuch vote rubbed a lot of people the wrong way,” said Kip Tew, the former Democratic Party state chair who turned Indiana blue for Barack Obama in 2008. And Donnelly voted confirm the majority of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, but opposed seven, including, Betsy DeVos, Tom Price, Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions and Steve Mnuchin. Donnelly announced his opposition to Pruitt but did not vote on his confirmation because he was meeting with Governor Eric Holcomb and other officials in East Chicago, after the state declared a disaster emergency in the town. Back in November, Tew told me that if Donnelly were to vote for the GOP tax bill, he risked inviting a serious primary challenge.
But last week, Donnelly voted against the Senate tax bill, which he called in a statement a “partisan tax hike on Indiana’s middle class” that “does nothing to prevent outsourcing of US jobs to foreign countries, and it’s a giveaway to Wall Street and other big money interests.” This, despite months of courting and cajoling from the White House, including a “very pleasant” ride on Air Force One from Washington to Indianapolis for Trump’s tax reform rollout at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in September. “He was nice,” Donnelly said of the president. “It was mostly pleasantries.” During their Air Force One meeting, Trump confided that he thought the 2018 Indiana Senate race promised to be closer than advertised. “A lot of people are telling me that you’re going to be very, very tough to beat,” Trump said, according to the senator.
And what did the president say back to him? “Not much,” Donnelly said.
Trump’s culture war with the NFL? “I don’t know what the thinking is behind that. I’m just trying to create more jobs here.”
Vice President Mike Pence’s October visit to Lucas Oil Stadium and an Indianapolis Colts game, where he walked out after the national anthem? “I’m not going to get into that.”
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe? “He’ll go where the facts go.”
“What voters want to talk about, and what I want to talk about all the time, is everyone in Washington should just try to work together, and work on what’s best for the country,” Donnelly said as we zipped over Highway 30, the same path he will have to travel to win reelection. “Don’t worry about Democrat, don’t worry about Republican, just worry about America.”
The result is that he may be a more formidable candidate than he gets credit for.
‘Before they were ever Trump voters,’ Donnelly told me, ‘they were my voters.'”
“Outside looking in, we’re a pretty red state,” said one prominent Indiana Republican operative, who asked for anonymity to speak frankly about Republicans’ chances. “The Republicans in Indiana view it as a pickup situation. But the problem is that Donnelly is not particularly partisan. Overall, he’s done a pretty good job being vocal on the right issues, and he’s chosen his spots carefully. He’s done a good job of walking that line. He’s being underestimated nationally.”
Donnelly can steer through a tricky political moment, sure. But to do so again in the midterm elections, he’s leaning on help from Trump voters, the kind of people he claims to know as well as the Indiana highways in his old congressional district.
“Before they were ever Trump voters,” Donnelly told me, “they were my voters.”
To hear Donnelly tell it, he all but predicted seismic changes in the Republican Party before anyone else. In fact, he told me, the success of his Senate run nearly six years ago was predicated on such an earthquake. It was May 2012, and Sen. Richard Lugar, the Indiana icon and once the most senior Republican senator, was locked in a divisive primary with Richard Mourdock, the state treasurer and Tea Partier.
For nearly four decades, a Lugar win would have been as reliable as the farming adage that corn should be knee-high by the Fourth of July. This time, though, as when a late spring snow delays planting, that Farmer’s Almanac wisdom proved wrong. As it turns out, Hoosier voters like everything in moderation, including moderation, and Mourdock prevailed—mostly on account of painting Lugar as an out-of-touch pol who spent too much time in Washington.
Donnelly anticipated that the Tea Party would target—and take down—Lugar. “[The Republicans’] focus had been taken off of so many things that have built our country, and made it stronger,” he said of the political moment. “Instead of focusing on things that brought us together, there was this effort to divide people.” Meanwhile, Donnelly, who had settled in Indiana after graduating from Notre Dame in 1981, ran unopposed in his party’s May 2012 primary. At the time, he was a congressman from the 2nd Congressional District. He had served in that position since 2006. That year, a Democratic wave had rejuvenated his political career after a string of three political losses over several decades, dating back to a failed Indiana attorney general bid in 1988.
Facing off against Mourdock, Donnelly had held his own, but in October 2012, one debate sealed his win. His strategy had been to run an under-the-radar campaign, allowing his opponent’s negatives to sink him. And at that New Albany debate, Mourdock described pregnancies resulting from rape as preordained by God. “I just struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize: Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen,” he said. Mourdock tanked in the polls. Donnelly’s gambit paid off.
I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and tell me, ‘I’m a Republican, but I really appreciate the fact that you just try to do what’s right.’”
Once in office, Donnelly sought to model Lugar’s bipartisan ways. He took a nuts and bolts approach to governing, eschewing divisive issues and serving on the Armed Services Committee, Banking Committee, Agriculture Committee and Aging Committee. Donnelly’s first bill, the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act—named after a Farmland native who committed suicide in 2009 while on leave from National Guard duty in Afghanistan—requires routine mental health evaluations for all service members. “The message was clear and loud to me when I was sent to the Senate, and I was given this amazing opportunity,” Donnelly told me. “I think that’s how Senator Lugar conducted business, and that’s what I’ve tried to do, and that’s what the people here want. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and tell me, ‘I’m a Republican, but I really appreciate the fact that you just try to do what’s right.’”
Donnelly seeks Lugar’s advice occasionally. “He has done a good job,” Lugar told me in a November interview, approving of his successor’s moderate mien. “He has been thoughtful and constructive. It’s not been by accident that he has been able to pull together majorities and has been successful in doing that.”
Like Lugar, Donnelly told me he views himself as “hired help” and sees his job as giving voice to Hoosiers’ opinions rather than imposing his own on them. According to a September poll of 600 adults conducted by the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University, his vote on tax reform tracked with where most Hoosiers seem to be: Sixty percent said they believe the wealthy don’t pay their fair share, and 62 percent reported that some corporations don’t pay their fair share. Likewise, when it comes to the Affordable Care Act, 37 percent of respondents wanted Congress to wait to vote to repeal the law until details of a replacement have been worked out. Only 26 percent said Obamacare should be repealed immediately.
So far, Donnelly’s approach has proved popular with a range of Hoosier voters. An August Morning Consult poll showed that his approval rating was roughly the same among Republicans and Democrats alike, at 55 percent and 58 percent, respectively. “This looks like the ratings Senator Lugar had for much of his career—well regarded by both Democrats and Republicans,” Christine Matthews, president of Bellwether Research, and former pollster for Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, told me. “For that to be the case in these times is crazy good.” She said Donnelly’s numbers in Indiana are a bellwether for Trump ahead of 2018. “Will Donnelly be able to thread the needle to say he will work with Trump when it makes sense for Indiana but oppose him when it doesn’t?” she asked. “If Donnelly is doing well in a state that went plus-19 for Trump, that is an indication that Democrats will have a good 2018.”
A number of Trump supporters I interviewed like him, too. On the Friday morning I spent with Donnelly, he breezed into a YMCA in Lebanon, a town situated in Boone County, one of the so-called doughnut counties that ring Indianapolis. There for a Veterans Day Breakfast, Donnelly gripped and grinned his way through a pool of former service members. Among them was Bryan Johnson, 42, a Trump voter who had served nine tours of duty as an Army medic in Iraq and Afghanistan. Johnson, originally from Detroit, told me he would back Donnelly next November. “Primarily, he’s a huge supporter of vets. I’ve only been down here from Detroit for a few years. I heard a saying when I moved down here that an Indiana Democrat is like a Republican, a moderate Republican. It hits him right on the head. I feel he’s putting the military first,” Johnson said, citing Donnelly’s support for increasing the budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs and his work to upgrade the dishonorable discharges of veterans who have suffered from mental illness while enlisted. “Every time I’ve met him, he’s been a guy.”
Even among more progressive Democrats who have been left simmering by Donnelly’s approval of Gorsuch and his flirtation with Republicans on tax reform, he gets a pass.
“They get mad at him, and then they forgive him,” Baron Hill, the former Democratic congressman from the state’s 9th Congressional District, told me. In a red state like Indiana, they realize, a Democrat like Donnelly might be their best shot.
It’s possible Donnelly’s low-key 2012 campaign may come back to haunt him in 2018, according to Cam Savage, a GOP strategist who led Sen. Todd Young to a surprise victory over the moderate Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh in last year’s Senate race using much the same strategy. Donnelly, Savage said, lost the chance to build name identification and run a campaign that made a positive argument for him as a candidate.
Donnelly compensates for this by frequent visits to Indiana, where he’s at parades, round tables and ribbon cuttings almost every weekend. He may not be the most dynamic senator, eschewing fiery floor speeches, but he approaches his job with a blue-collar work ethic. He’s careful to execute what one might call “The Full Donnelly,” visiting all 92 Indiana counties each year, and he spends an average of more than 200 days in the state. “I’m in every part of the state,” Donnelly told me. When he’s in D.C., he lives in a townhouse five blocks from the Capitol with Democratic Reps. Ted Deutch of Florida and Jerry McNerny of California.
Still, Donnelly has a tough road ahead. In October, the nonpartisan Center for Effective Lawmaking, run by the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt, tagged Donnelly with a title that is sure to follow him the next 11 months: the least effective Democrat in the U.S. Senate. Based on 15 different measures, from number of bills sponsored to number of bills becoming law, the center found that Donnelly wasn’t great at getting his bills through committee, let alone to floor votes. His campaign manager, Peter Hanscom, issued a statement pushing back on the ranking. “Anyone who tries to claim that Joe is ineffective should talk to Indiana’s service members and military families about the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act or with families affected by opioid abuse about the provisions he offered that were included in last year’s Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act,” Hanscom’s statement read. But the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Donnelly’s Republican challengers blare the headline every chance they get.
In less guarded moments, though, he admits he faces what promise to be bruising months ahead. On the Friday morning I spent with him at the Indiana State Museum for a “Grow with Google” technology tour, he greeted a fan. It was the author and Indianapolis resident John Green, who was speaking at the Google event.
“Good luck the next few months, we’re rooting for you,” Green told him.
“If I don’t have any gray hair now, I will in a couple of months,” Donnelly replied.
Donnelly’s adult daughter, a prosecutor, recently moved back to Indiana, about a mile from his house. The senator had bought a new riding lawnmower, and his daughter’s grass needed a trim. “I’ll give you the mower,” he told her. But how to get it to her? He had a Jeep with a hitch, of course. But he would have to rent a U-Haul. What, he wondered, was keeping him from just driving the mower from his Granger subdivision to her place? He consulted his wife, who instructed him to at least put on a Notre Dame hat and pull it down, to make him less conspicuous. And off he went, riding the mower down a side street in a bustling residential area, drivers honking at him along the way. “It didn’t bother me at all,” Donnelly said. “It was a nice morning to go out for a ride.”
I happen to be a little bit Irish. You hit me, I’ll hit back twice as hard.”
That story is almost all you need to know to understand the pragmatic Joe Donnelly, the red-state senator who should have been an easy “yes” vote on tax reform ahead of a tough reelection. Almost. You also need to understand this, he told me: He will fight back in the nation’s most divisive midterm campaigns in 2018. “I want to talk about issues, but I’m going not to stand quietly by. I happen to be a little bit Irish. You hit me, I’ll hit back twice as hard.”
And so, three weeks before he announced he would oppose the Senate tax bill in its current form, it was clear the administration’s pressure had aroused Donnelly’s Irish bluntness. Donnelly’s staff had invited me to travel with him for a day back in Indiana, and after the Veterans Day event at the Lebanon YMCA, we rode in his press secretary’s car to the Google event. As he approached the entrance, a security officer greeted him. “The vice president wanted to know where you were last night,” the man said to Donnelly. “Tell him he should have invited me,” Donnelly shot back. The night before, at a tax reform event in Plainfield, Pence had once again pressured Donnelly publicly to vote for the tax bill. “I know we’re going to be able to count on Senator Todd Young, but Indiana also needs to be able to count on Senator Joe Donnelly to vote for tax relief for the people of the Hoosier State,” Pence said. Donnelly, along with other moderate Democratic senators, such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, felt their suggestions were never honestly considered by the White House. Donnelly, for example, wanted a provision added to ban companies from writing off moving costs when outsourcing jobs to foreign countries. “What we were hoping was that this was an invitation to participate,” Heitkamp told me after the vote. “The only participation they wanted was our vote.”
Later, at lunch at the Indianapolis City Market, in between bites of a pretzel dog, Donnelly blew off some steam. Of pressure from the White House, Donnelly said: “With all respect to them, it doesn’t even cross my radar. I respect the vice president, but if his point in coming here yesterday was to try and put pressure on me, he could have saved the gas. Look, my only barometer on this is what’s right for Indiana. That is how I look at this.”
After lunch, Donnelly headed north to Plymouth, where he had a farm bill listening session on the leafy campus of Ancilla College, near Donaldson, which had recently launched an agriculture program.
For 45 minutes, Donnelly took questions about dairy production, about broadband access and even tax reform. “Trickle down is not working,” one woman said.
“I don’t work for corporations,” Donnelly told her. “I work for the people of Indiana.”
Near the end, a farmer stood up and shared a story about how his brother died of an opioid overdose. He wanted to know Donnelly’s plan to deal with the public health scourge.
“It’s killing our families,” Donnelly conceded, talking about the need for more funding for addiction counseling assistance.
Afterward, I talked to John Childs, a pumpkin farmer from Marshall County who supported Trump, whom he called “the lesser of two evils.” He wore a John Deere hat, jeans and cowboy boots. He plans to support Donnelly next fall. “He’ll tell you, ‘I work for you.’ He’ll tell you pretty straight, ‘It’s not gonna happen,’” said Childs, who had just spent a few minutes trying to convince Donnelly that the farm bill should be called the food bill, a thing Donnelly admitted seemed unlikely to happen.
Next, Donnelly toured a goat barn on campus. “Do you vote?” Donnelly asked a goat that had shoved its head over a gate as he petted it. The goat licked his hand. “Well, at least I got the goat vote,” he said, to no one in particular.
Donnelly, his state director and a few other staffers next traveled to a gas station and the high school football game. There, he bid players and coaching staff from Penn and Crown Point high schools good luck before ducking out after kickoff.
As Donnelly left the football field and made his way back to the RV in the parking lot, I asked him if he felt squeezed in the middle, with pressure bearing down from both Republicans and Democrats.
“Not at all,” he said.
And then he returned to his RV, to another tight space, to another impossible maneuver. Finally, after a few minutes of jostling and wiggling, he and the RV disappeared into a milky black Indiana night.
FOOTNOTE: THIS ARTICLE WAS POSTED BY THE CCO WITHOUT BIAS, OPINON OR EDITING.