HOWEY: Donnelly starts reelection bid with key advantages

Sen. Joe Donnelly speaks to the media after officially kicking off his 2018 re-election campaign at the UAW Local 1963 in Anderson, Ind. on Aug. 21, 2017 (WTHR Photo)
Brian Howey

ANDERSON, Ind. (Howey Politics) – On the day Sen. Joe Donnelly kicked off his reelection bid, the highly respected Cook Political Report moved the Indiana Senate race from “Leans Democrat” to “Tossup.” It isn’t the only publication to enter the tossup zone with Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball on the same page.

But at this early point, with already more than $5 million spilling into what will likely be a $100 million Senate race, my Howey Politics Indiana publication lists it as “Leans Democrat.” Normally I don’t venture into a general election forecast until the field is set, but due of the gravity of this race which could determine which party controls the Senate, this is an exception.

Currently the Republican field includes U.S. Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, State Rep. Mike Braun of Jasper, Kokomo attorney Mark Hurt, New Albany educator Andrew Takami and Atlanta, Ind., businessman Terry Henderson, with Attorney General Curtis Hill teasing a potential candidacy. Without a Republican nominee, we don’t have enough to gauge the relative strengths and weaknesses of either nominee in contrast with each other. Will Donnelly face an incumbent congressman coming from an institution with an approval below the 20th percentile, or Rep. Braun coming from the Indiana General Assembly with approval above 50 percent?

Donnelly has and will maintain a money advantage, reporting $3.7 million on his second quarter Federal Election Commission report, compared to Rokita and Messer reporting just over $2 million each. Rokita and Messer will mow through much of their funds between now and the primary and will have to reload. Conservative super PACs will certainly make this race competitive, but expect Donnelly to have a persistent money edge.

According to a Morning Consult Poll released two weeks ago, 55 percent of Indiana Republicans approve Donnelly’s job performance. A constant phrase from Republicans is, “I like Joe Donnelly.” They’ll disagree with him on issues, but they respect him. It was once that way with former senator Evan Bayh, who always had a significant chunk of Republican support in his five victorious statewide general election races. That is, until last November when super PACs and the Todd Young campaign destroyed his brand, exploiting his residency, the family’s wealth tied with his Senate connections, and Bayh’s lobbying career.

Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, R-Ind.

If Republicans can savage Donnelly’s reputation as they did to Evan Bayh last year, there will be a path to victory. But the other fork in the road is that Messer and Rokita are already pummeling each other.

Both Messer and Rokita vow to take aim at Donnelly’s 2010 vote for Obamacare. So did 2012 Republican nominee Richard Mourdock. But Donnelly won a close 2010 reelection bid against then-State Rep. Jackie Walorski, then defeated Mourdock in 2012 despite the Obamacare attacks.

Donnelly defends his Obamacare vote, noting that 400,000 Hoosiers have health insurance who didn’t before.

Obamacare is not as toxic (outside of GOP primary voters) as Messer and Rokita would lead you to believe. The Kaiser Family Foundation Tracking Poll placed Obamacare as 52 percent favorable and 39 percent unfavorable nationally. Those numbers will vary in Indiana, but Obamacare is not as underwater as it had been in recent election cycles before congressional Republicans botched the repeal-and-replace this year.

Gallup puts President Trump’s approve/disapprove numbers at 47/48 percent in Indiana in late July. That’s a serious erosion from his 19 percent plurality last November. Look no further than 2004 when President G.W. Bush won the state by 20 percentage points, only to find Republican Reps. Chris Chocola, Mike Sodrel and John Hostettler losing in the 2006 mid-terms to Donnelly, Baron Hill and Brad Ellsworth due to the Iraq War debacle.

And, typically, first midterm elections for a sitting president are dangerous for his party as Presidents Reagan, Clinton, Bush43 and Obama will attest. All suffered heavy first midterm losses. Trump’s Real Clear Politics job approval average is 40 percent approve, 57 percent disapprove, historically bad stats.

President Donald Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington Va., on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, during a Presidential Address to the Nation. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Peter Lemieux, writing for Politics by the Numbers, notes, “The average decline in Presidential job approval between Inauguration Day and the first subsequent off-year election has been a bit under nine points. That would take Trump’s score down toward the mid-thirties. However because he started at just 45 percent approval when inaugurated, he may not experience the same decline as did presidents who started from a higher rating.”

A key caveat: Past presidents didn’t tweet.

If Trump dips into the low 30th percentile, the GOP majorities will be in trouble. And Trump is feuding with Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and at least five other GOP senators up for reelection, so he is in uncharted territory there, perhaps on the way to becoming the first independent president.

As we experienced in 2016, President Trump presents a complete wild card. In June 2016 I issued a “tsunami watch” with the potential of swamping down-ballot Republicans. By November, the tsunami actually reversed, dooming Democrats John Gregg, Bayh and Shelli Yoder in the 9th Congressional District.

There is little doubt that this will turn into a very competitive race between Donnelly and the Republican nominee. But strange things can happen, like Todd Young defeating Evan Bayh by 9 percent last November, a spread no one was predicting.

Donnelly will have his challenges, but at this writing he also has key advantages.

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.