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.

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.

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Mike Braun, Republican nomiee for Senate in Indiana
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Mike Braun, Republican nomiee for Senate in Indiana
UNITED STATES - APRIL 4: Mike Braun, who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Indiana, attends the Kosciusko County Republican Fish Fry in Warsaw, Ind., on April 4, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 4: Signs for Mike Braun, Reps. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., and Luke Messer, R-Ind., who are running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Indiana, are seen outside the Steuben County Lincoln Day Dinner in Angola, Ind., on April 4, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 4: Mike Braun, who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Indiana, is interviewed in Bekah's Westside Cafe in Lebanon, Ind., on April 4, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 4: Mike Braun, left, who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Indiana, talks with State Rep. Dave Wolkins at the Kosciusko County Republican Fish Fry in Warsaw, Ind., on April 4, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 4: Mike Braun, center, who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Indiana, leaves Bekah's Westside Cafe after talking with patrons in Lebanon, Ind., on April 4, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 4: Mike Braun, who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Indiana, is interviewed in Bekah's Westside Cafe in Lebanon, Ind., on April 4, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 4: Mike Braun, who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Indiana, talks with patrons of Bekah's Westside Cafe in Lebanon, Ind., on April 4, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 4: Mike Braun, standing at left, who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Indiana, talks with patrons of Bekah's Westside Cafe in Lebanon, Ind., on April 4, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 4: Mike Braun, left, who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Indiana, talks with World War II Navy veteran Dick Higgins at the Kosciusko County Republican Fish Fry in Warsaw, Ind., on April 4, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 4: Mike Braun, who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Indiana, talks with patrons of Bekah's Westside Cafe in Lebanon, Ind., on April 4, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 4: Mike Braun, who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Indiana, is interviewed in Bekah's Westside Cafe in Lebanon, Ind., on April 4, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
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Trying to recover after the Kavanaugh vote, Donnelly bent over backwards to align himself with conservative voters in his state, running on “Hoosier common sense values” and emphasizing his record of focusing on common problems such as opioids and veteran suicides.

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 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 that was not enough to overcome the Kavanaugh effect and the entrenched partisanship of Indiana politics.

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