2018 Indiana Senate Race: Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Does incumbent Democrat Joe Donnelly stand a chance in a state that Trump won by 19 points?

2018 Indiana Senate Race: Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

by Sloan Kettering


As you may remember from my introductory article, Indiana’s incumbent Democratic Senator, Joe Donnelly, is one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection this election cycle. The recent government shutdown dealt a serious blow to all Democrats in the Senate, but those from states Trump won in 2016 were the most affected. Senator Donnelly was one of 32 Democrats who voted with the Republicans to reopen the government. Donnelly should tread lightly as he voted with Republicans not just once, but both times to keep the government open.

The government shutdown vote was devastating for Democrats in Trump states because it forced them to choose between their party base and their own constituencies. For example, Donnelly may be a Democrat, but he’s a Democrat from an R+19 state where Trump won 57% of the vote. Since Indiana swung so hard for Trump, Donnelly was forced to cuck his base, drawing ire from both Indiana Democrats and his colleagues in the Senate. In an attempt to stay connected with his Trump-supporting constituents, Donnelly visited every county in Indiana in 2017. According to the most recent ratings from FiveThirtyEight, Donnelly has voted with President Trump 52.5% of the time and is predicted to vote in line with Trump 85% of the time (a complete list of how Donnelly has voted compared to Trump’s positions can be viewed on FiveThirtyEight’s website under their “Trump Score” ratings).

So how has Donnelly’s voting affected his approval rating? In a Morning Consult poll conducted last summer, Donnelly’s approval rating was at 53%, with a disapproval rating of 25%. However, in November, Morning Consult placed Donnelly’s approval rating at 47%, with a 26% disapproval rating. Most recently, January’s Morning Consult polling reported a 6% drop in his approval margin, now 44%, with a 30% disapproval rating. As we can observe from the data, Senator Donnelly’s approval rating has steadily dropped, while his disapproval rating has gradually risen. In addition to Donnelly’s dropping numbers, Morning Consult found a decline in approval ratings for virtually every vulnerable Senator.

The Democratic Party has taken notice of Senator Donnelly’s plight and has thrown significant support behind his campaign. The weekend of January 27th, Donnelly attended a Houston fundraising event headlined by Senator Chuck Schumer. Schumer most likely attempted to rally the liberal base of the Democratic Party behind Donnelly after his votes to keep the government open hurt his credibility with that constituency. Meanwhile, Donnelly will make efforts to appeal to the moderate Democrats in his home state with an upcoming fundraising event with another moderate Democrat who found appeal with working class Whites. Recent news has arisen that this February former Vice President Joe Biden will hold a fundraising event in Indiana for Donnelly’s campaign, though no further details on the event have been released yet. The contrast between these fundraising events highlights the difficult predicament of Democrats in Trump states, who must walk a tightrope between an increasingly liberal Democratic base and a rapidly shrinking constituency of moderate White Democrats.

While I’m on the topic of fundraising, I thought I’d take a closer look into Donnelly’s campaign finances as well (all financial data was obtained from the Center for Responsive Politics, which can be found at OpenSecrets.org). A total of $36,496 in outside money has been spent against Donnelly by the Senate Leadership Fund and the Stars & Stripes Forever PAC. Donnelly’s campaign manager estimates that his opponents have spent at least $1.5 million against him. I’m still digging up data on outside spending in this Senate race and will continue to include this information in my articles as new updates come.

Focusing on Donnelly’s own finances, it’s clear ((who))) is contributing to his campaign. In fundraising, his top industries are law firms and securities/investment, which have contributed $591,051 and $401,546 respectively. The top contributors to his campaign are Votesane PAC and Signature Bank, which have given $265,887 and $56,750 respectively. Another one of his other top industries includes leadership PACs, which indicates the desperation of his colleagues in the Senate, who have been contributing some of their own money to his campaign. A few other top contributors include Eli Lilly & Co., Faegre Baker Daniels, and Land O’Lakes.

Donnelly’s campaign committee has raised a total of $6,769,897, spent $2,235,751, and holds $4,628,082, with no debts. These numbers are substantially higher than the average fundraising by senators this year, which is only $2.05 million. Donnelly’s fundraising numbers are so far above the average because the Democrats know just how vulnerable his seat is, responding by dumping everything they’ve got into his reelection.

How strong is Donnelly’s grassroots support? Small individual contributions of less than $200 made up only 8.3% of his total fundraising. His own self-financing makes up a mere 0.21% of his money. On the other hand, large individual contributions and PAC contributions make up 50.37% and 38.46% respectively. These numbers make it obvious that Donnelly’s fundraising comes from a small number of wealthy donors rather than the average Indiana voter.

Senator Joe Donnelly is skating on thin ice this election cycle. With two strong Republican contenders gunning for his seat, regardless of the outcome of the primary election, Donnelly will be faced with a tough challenge going into November. My estimation is that he will lose—who he will lose to remains the question.

Sloan Kettering
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