Jack Colwell: Will Donnelly's Gorsuch vote matter?
Thursday, April 20, 2017 9:08 AM
SOUTH BEND – What difference does it make?
Sen. Joe Donnelly is the center of attention with the Senate drama over confirming Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. Most Senate Democrats, but not Donnelly, sought to block Gorsuch. Republicans responded to refusal of enough Democrats to join in providing the required 60 votes for confirmation by blowing up that requirement with the “nuclear option.”
What difference did it make that Donnelly was one of only three Democrats to vote for Gorsuch? Well, it meant that the vote confirming Gorsuch, with one Republican absent, was 54-45 instead of 53-46.
Clearly, not enough Democrats would join with the 52-member Republican majority to provide 60 votes to end a filibuster blocking Gorsuch and confirm him. It was clear also that Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell would use that “nuclear option” to end filibusters on Supreme Court nominees and allow confirmation by a simple majority. Gorsuch was going to be on the court, no matter what Donnelly did. He was no difference-maker.
But what difference does it make for Donnelly as he faces re-election next year? He is seen as highly vulnerable in a state that Donald Trump carried by 19 percentage points. The National Journal calls him the most vulnerable Democratic senator up for re-election. So, it would seem that reaction to Donnelly’s vote on Gorsuch could have a significant effect on his chances.
What difference did it make in how Donnelly is perceived by Hoosier voters? Not a lot. Donnelly is a moderate Democrat. Has been consistently so in his time in the House and now in the Senate. He is one of the dwindling number of legislators willing to reach across the aisle with a handshake on a compromise, not with a dagger to inflict damage.
He is proud of this, publicizing his listings as one of the most bipartisan members of Congress and noting that he was a co-sponsor with a Republican on two of the very few bills passed this session.
His vote for Gorsuch was not surprising. Gorsuch, though troubling to Democrats who didn’t want such a conservative voice on the court, clearly had judicial qualifications and once was confirmed unanimously for an Appeals Court seat. Donnelly stressed that he would have preferred the court nominee named by Barack Obama, a nominee also clearly with judicial qualifications and a more progressive approach. But Republicans wouldn’t even give Obama’s choice a hearing, hoping for election of a Republican for president.
“Elections do have consequences,” Donnelly said. With those consequences certain, he asked, “Do I continue this warfare?” “No,” he decided, and that meant voting “yes.”
So, will Indiana Republicans thank Donnelly and concede he is a moderate? Of course not. Right after his Gorsuch vote, the Indiana Republican Party put out a statement scoffing at Donnelly’s recent fundraising success as “proof positive that his liberal buddies are scared.” The two Republican congressmen expected to battle for the party’s nomination for the Senate, Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, no doubt will portray Donnelly as a dangerous liberal threat as they seek the chance to run against him.
There is another possible effect. An organization called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee ran a full-page ad in The Tribune and other newspapers denouncing Gorsuch as favoring death of a freezing truck driver in a court decision and asking, “So why does Senator Joe Donnelly support Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court?”
The group calls itself “the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party.” Would they seek to keep progressive Democrats from supporting Donnelly and even run a Democratic primary opponent against him? Maybe. But how would that work with Democrats choosing ultimately between Donnelly and a Republican seeking to add to the GOP Senate majority?
What difference did his Gorsuch vote make? No difference on Senate confirmation. Perhaps not much either way in Indiana by the time Hoosiers vote more than 18 months from now.
Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.