HOWEY: Trump, Kavanaugh and change forged Braun’s upset win

Mike Braun addresses the media after winning his bid for the U.S. Senate, unseating incumbent Democrat Joe Donnelly, Nov. 6, 2018. (WTHR Photo/Nicole Hernandez)
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Brian Howey

INDIANAPOLIS (Howey Politics) – It would be easy to consign Mike Braun’s epic, not-even-close upset of U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly to a Democratic blunder on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Donnelly, along with U.S. Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., all voted against Kavanaugh and lost emphatically. West Virginia Democrat U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin supported Kavanaugh and won easily.

Until the allegations of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford surfaced in mid-September, Donnelly had narrow poll advantages and Democratic voter intensity far outpacing Republicans. He was a probable yea vote on Kavanaugh. After the sensational testimony, this race became nationalized, and it stoked up the kind of voter turnout that should happen every election. More than 300,000 Hoosiers voted early and on Election Day we watched long lines with turnout likely to be more than 50 percent.

“I think the Kavanaugh effect was real,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who campaigned with Braun at the Allen County Republican Bean Dinner and in Mishawaka last week. The South Carolina Republican added that Braun and other Senate Republicans won due to “Kavanaugh, caravan and a good economy.”

President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence played huge roles on behalf of Braun. They rallied to Braun’s side two days after the primary in Elkhart. In late August, an Evansville MAGA rally supplied Braun and national Super PACs with video and audio bytes that served as the thrust of his homestretch advertising campaign. Then Trump came back to Indiana three times in the final two weeks, where he burnished the fears of a migrant caravan. He branded Donnelly “Sleepy Joe.” He warned Democrats would raise taxes and open the borders.

“There’s only one way to stop this Democrat-led assault on America’s sovereignty: You have to vote Republican tomorrow,” Trump said at the Fort Wayne Coliseum. “This election is about safety, and this election is about jobs. For years, you watched as we let foreign countries plunder our wealth, shutter our factories and steal our jobs. But those days are over.”

At these MAGA rallies – more than 20,000 turned out in Fort Wayne and Southport – Hoosier voters lapped up the Trumpian rhetoric. Braun embraced Trump and stuck to his strict talking points, avoided the press after debates, and, unlike 2012 GOP nominee Richard Mourdock, didn’t make a mistake. His media strategy wasn’t nearly as good during the general campaign as it was in the primary when he triumphed over U.S. Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita by designating them as cardboard cutout “twins.” When the dust settled on Tuesday night, Braun had retired three sitting members of Congress. U.S. Sen. Todd Young was with him on stage at the J.W. Marriott Tuesday night, himself defeating four former members (Mike Sodrel, Baron Hill, Marlin Stutzman and Evan Bayh). The new Hoosier Senate tandem has been a status quo wrecking crew on Capitol Hill.

Beyond Kavanaugh, Trump and Pence, Indiana has essentially become a one-party state. Donnelly’s defeat leaves only two federal Democrats, Reps. Pete Visclosky and André Carson.

The Donnelly loss – by 161,085 votes with 95 percent reporting as of Friday morning – completes the modern decimation of the Indiana Democratic Party after an eight-year slide. The party under-performed in its remaining bastions – Lake and Marion counties, and the university cities. Close legislative races in Lake and Madison counties suggest many union workers are still in Trump’s camp. It has disappeared over much of rural Indiana.

Donnelly had a mere 50,000 vote plurality out of Lake County and just a 52,000 vote edge out of Marion County (though 30,000 absentees remain to be counted as of this writing Thursday). Donnelly performed well below his 2012 campaign in Tippecanoe, Monroe, Vigo and Vanderburgh, though late-counted absentee ballots will raise his totals. In his home of St. Joseph County, Donnelly had a 9,000 vote plurality, down from 15,000 in 2012, though that should also rise ounce the absentees are counted.

In 2012, Donnelly won Lake County by 74,000 votes, Indianapolis by 120,000 votes, Monroe County by 12,000, St. Joseph by 15,000 votes and Vigo by 8,000.

Braun won the Indy doughnut counties easily: Hamilton County by 11,000 votes, by 10,000 in Hancock, just under 5,000 in Boone, just under 14,000 in Hendricks and 15,000 votes in Johnson. Total, Braun won by the doughnut counties by about 50,000, off-setting Indianapolis.

But in outer Indiana, Braun rolled up big pluralities across what Vice President Pence has long called the “amber waves of grain,” winning Gibson, Jackson, Jasper, Jennings, Lawrence, Wells, Whitley, LaGrange, Posey and Harrison counties with more than 60 percent; and by at least 70 percent in Kosciusko, Montgomery, Ripley, Putnam, Daviess and Shelby. Spread out across the 80 or so rural counties, Braun rolled up much of his 161,000 plurality. For Donnelly, it was death by 80 localized cuts.

To show you how much Indiana has changed, in his 1998 Senate race against Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke, Evan Bayh won what were once Democratic river counties Gibson (73 percent), Floyd (68 percent), Crawford (70 percent), Clark (72 percent), Posey (74 percent), Vigo (76 percent) and Sullivan (79 percent). Most of those counties went Republican this time, many in the 60th percentile.

Donnelly tried to make the case he supported President Trump “62 percent of the time.” A majority of Hoosier voters were seeking a 100-percenter.

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