INDIANAPOLIS -- Indiana Democrats are expecting U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly’s 100,000-plus vote victory over an embattled Republican in 2012 to translate into a victory over his Republican challenger in November.
But this time around, Donnelly and his supporters have to overcome the popularity in Indiana of President Donald Trump.
Trump, Vice President and former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and former President George W. Bush have all stumped in Indiana for Donnelly's opponent -- businessman and former State Rep. Mike Braun.
Meanwhile, the campaign has turned ugly through nearly continual television advertisements, with first one candidate and then the other slamming his opponent. The ads have been supported by a windfall of campaign funds at hand for both candidates. According to press releases from their campaigns, Braun and Donnelly have each raised in excess of $14 million during this election cycle.
Braun's election would be a critical component to advancing Trump's agenda. Republicans hold a slim 51-47 majority (two senators are independents) over Democrats in the Senate. If Braun can unseat Donnelly, it could help Republicans hang onto the majority.
Donnelly is criticized by Republicans as a consistent liberal vote in the Senate. He voted with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., 75 percent of the time in the recent Congress, according to ProPublica. In contrast, Donnelly and U.S. Senator Todd Young, the Republican from Indiana, agreed on 61 percent of votes.
"He is not going to support the president's agenda," Kyle Hupfer, Indiana Republican Party chair, said of Donnelly. "Certainly if a Democrat majority were to happen, there's no way they're going to support the president's agenda. So it's critical to pick up that seat in order to maintain the majority."
Hupfer is counting on Hoosiers who gave 57 percent of the vote to Trump in his 2016 presidential election defeat of Hillary Clinton.
"There are certainly segmented voters out there ... who came out for the first time or the first time in a long time because they saw something different in President Trump," Hupfer said, noting Hoosiers saw Trump as "someone that they thought would cut through the bureaucracy in Washington, which is exactly what he's done."
Democrats need Donnelly to retain votes from 2012 and hit a larger grassroots movement. His campaign is pushing the view that Donnelly is the centrist and Braun is a Trump rubber stamp.
"I think part of what makes Joe unique and what makes him such a strong candidate for the state is that he's not really a conventional Democrat," said Will Baskin-Gurwitz, communications director of Donnelly for Indiana. "One of the things that Joe is fond of saying is that before a lot of Trump voters were Trump voters they were Donnelly voters in 2012."
On Aug. 30, the president held a rally in Evansville, bringing Braun on stage. While Braun pledged his allegiance to Trump, the president mentioned Donnelly's name 12 times, all in opposition to the Democrat's re-election. Trump mentioned Braun by name just eight times.
Polls show that the race is neck-and-neck. According to a Fox News poll in early October, 43 percent of voters favored Donnelly, 41 percent favored Braun and 7 percent favored Libertarian candidate Lucy Brenton.
In 2012, Donnelly carried just 26 of Indiana's 92 counties, according to the Indiana Secretary of State. In 2016, 22 of those 26 counties swung to the Donald Trump/Mike Pence Republican ticket. Clinton captured just four Indiana counties in 2012: Monroe, home of Indiana University; and urban-based Lake, St. Joseph and Marion counties.
South of Terre Haute, local Republican Party chairman Bill Springer doesn't see Trump switch-overs going back to Donnelly.
Sullivan County has enjoyed jobs return in a coal mining-rich section of the state. In 2016, more county voters asked for Republican ballots than Democratic, Springer maintained.
"The Democrats have not really left the party; the Democrat Party left them," he said.
Voter turnout for a mid-term election might not hit the 2016 rate of 58 percent, noted Porter County Republican Chair Jeff Chidester in northwestern Indiana. His county voted for Donnelly in 2012 and Trump in 2016.
Donnelly had a 14,581 vote advantage in Porter County over Republican Richard Mourdock. In 2016, Trump took the county by a 5,156-vote margin.
"I don't know how suppressed Trump voters are going to be," Chidester said. "I know he's trying to fire them up. But it just seems like every day something bad or worse happens to the guy, and it demoralizes them. So some of them may not make it to the polls."
Shortly before the November 2012 general election for the U.S. Senate, Mourdock made a controversial misstep by saying that pregnancy from rape "was something God intended to happen."
"Nobody expected Donnelly to win, and then that thing broke out about Mourdock. I think that's why Donnelly won," said Waynetta Means, Democrat Party chairwoman in eastern Indiana's Henry County.