Republicans make a big pickup in Indiana Senate race

Republicans picked up a Senate seat in Indiana Tuesday night, as businessman Mike Braun defeated Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in one of the tightest races of the cycle, making the road to a Democratic majority in the Senate even steeper.

The race was always forecast to be close, but Donnelly was considered to be in the driver’s seat for much of the spring and summer. He was a more relentless campaigner and had been a near-constant presence in every corner of the state since he won the seat in 2012. And Democrats had more money for TV ads over the summer.

Donnelly, who voted to seat Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court last year — but against Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation — was well-liked by Republicans and Democrats alike. He ran on “Hoosier common sense values” and emphasizing his record of focusing on common problems such as opioids and veteran suicides.

But after Labor Day, Republicans drew even on the airwaves, making the race tighter. Then the multiple allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh, following the initial charge by Chistine Blasey Ford, galvanized Republican voters who felt his opponents were piling on.

The effect of the Kavanaugh hearings were not the same in every state. Polls showed nationally that it activated Democrats who were upset about the way Ford was treated more than it did Republicans who were Kavanaugh defenders. But in Indiana, where Republicans greatly outnumber Democrats, the impact was heavily in Braun’s favor.

Mike Braun at a campaign rally that featured President Trump in Fort Wayne, Ind., on Nov. 5, 2018. (Photo: Michael Conroy/AP)
Mike Braun at a campaign rally that featured President Trump in Fort Wayne, Ind., on Nov. 5, 2018. (Photo: Michael Conroy/AP)

Trying to recover after the Kavanaugh vote, Donnelly, 63, bent over backwards to align himself with conservative voters in his state. He released an ad denouncing the “radical left,” voicing support for building a border wall and quoting Republican icon Ronald Reagan. He also said he would consider legislation getting rid of birthright citizenship after Trump floated the idea in the campaign’s final days.

Braun’s biggest vulnerabilities were questions about his commitment to protecting health insurance for people with preexisting conditions and his lack of independence from President Trump. Braun made a fortune through his ownership of a car parts manufacturing company, and he offered his employees health insurance plans that included deductibles as high as $10,000.

Donnelly used that fact to criticize Braun and to connect him to national Republicans’ vulnerabilities on health care. The GOP-controlled Congress pushed a bill in 2017 to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to replace it with legislation that offered far fewer protections for people with preexisting conditions, and the Trump Justice Department is currently pushing a lawsuit that would reduce similar protections. Braun has said he supports that effort.

But Donnelly’s attack on Braun’s health care stance was not enough to overcome the Kavanaugh effect and the entrenched partisanship of Indiana politics.

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