Coach Bob Knight speaks at Southport HS Friday night as President Trump and Vice President Pence look on.
Coach Bob Knight speaks at Southport HS Friday night as President Trump and Vice President Pence look on.
NASHVILLE, Ind. - Through all the Mexico Joe and China Mike antics, the food fights, splittin’ firewood, through the blur of tens of millions of dollars’ worth of TV ads, the Indiana U.S. Senate race is in its final days.

Hoosiers are turning out in record numbers (292,726 ballots cast over the first 14  days of early voting) to decide whether to send Democrat Joe Donnelly back for another six years, or to replace him with Republican Mike Braun. So where do things stand here in the homestretch?

First, with Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp likely to lose in North Dakota, the Donnelly/Braun showdown will not determine which party controls the Senate. Democrats had to protect all of their seats to do that.

Second, Howey Politics Indiana commentator Chris Sautter writes this week that most “wave elections” take shape in the final days. There are some like the LBJ landslide of 1964 or the Watergate debacle for Republicans that you could see coming. But others like the 1980 Reagan revolution or the Democrat wave of 2006 developed late. Campaigning in Southport Friday night with President Trump and Braun, Vice President Mike Pence said, “We Keep hearing about this blue wave. But I think that blue wave is going to hit a red wall.”

Last week, I really thought Braun was pulling away. He had small leads in a series of four polls. A Ball State Hoosier Poll showed President Trump’s approve/disapprove numbers at 53/39 percent, the best he’s been since the 2016 election when he carried Indiana by 19 percent.

Then came the classic twists: The Cesar Sayoc bomb spree targeting 14 Trump critics, and the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. President Trump lashed out at victims of the bomber, tweeted about it in “scare quotes,” complained that it was robbing the GOP of momentum, and on the same day of the Pittsburgh atrocity, told Future Farmers of America conventioneers in Indianapolis that he was having a “bad hair day.”

On Monday, Gallup Tracking showed his approval had declined 4 percent, to 40 percent. When Presidents Clinton and Obama had approval at 45 percent, their parties ended up with a mid-term bloodbath, losing dozens upon dozens of congressional seats. 

Then came two polls on Wednesday. Fox News gave Donnelly a 45-38 percent lead, which was truly an outlier. It put Trump’s approve/disapprove at 50/48 percent. An NBC/Marist Poll had Donnelly up 48-46 percent. When Libertarian Lucy Brenton was added, Donnelly was up 3 percent.

Both of those polls revealed great fluidity, with 14 percent in the NBC/Marist Poll saying they were “persuadable,” that is, they could change their votes, while the Fox Poll put it at 19 percent. Lkely voters asked how interested they are in the Senate race in the Fox Poll, 44% of Democrats said they were "extremely" interested, compared to 37% for Republicans and 16% for independents. On the ideological spectrum, 45% of liberals, 37% of conservatives, 31% of moderates and 37% of evangelicals described themselves as "extremely" interested. 

So there is still great volatility here. Before these last two polls came out, I had the race “tossup” with Braun having a slight advantage. He was in a tossup primary race against Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rolita where there was a huge pool of undecideds, and he won by 10 percent.

After those two polls, I still list the race as a tossup, but with a slight Donnelly edge. The metric website FiveThirtyEight gave Donnelly an 80 percent chance of winning last week, declining to 67.1 percent on Wednesday, then rebounding to 71.3% on Thursday and 68.3% on Saturday morning.

In the midst of all this polling frenzy, we find the big guns coming in. On Friday, President Trump and Vice President Pence came to Southport for a rally for Braun, and then return to Fort Wayne on Election Eve. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be on stage with the president of the United States, the vice president and Bobby Knight," Braun said. "Only in America. Only in Indiana." 

Trump boasted about the economy in Southport. “How were those jobs numbers today?” he asked the crowd of more than 8,500 Hoosiers. “In just four days the people of Indiana are going to send Mike Braun to the United States Senate so we can keep making America great again. This election will decide whether we build on the extraordinary progress we’ve made or whether we let the Democrats take a giant wrecking ball to our economy. In the last month alone, we added another 250,000 jobs and another 600,000 Americans returned to the workforce. The unemployment fell to the lowest level in 50 years and more Americans are working today than ever before.”

Former congressman Mark Souder writes in his Howey Politics Indiana column this week that normally it would be the vice president returning to his home state to rally the troops. “So here, in the days before Election Day, it is Donald Trump riding in to rescue Mike Braun and defeat the incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly, in a state where Donnelly – if he wasn’t Joe Donnelly – could be losing by 30 points.”

Souder believes Braun will win. President Trump must be seeing internal polling showing a vivid path to victory for the Republican. If Donnelly survives after two late Trump visits, well, that would be embarrassing for the guy who values winning over anything else.

The Trump visits could also spur more women to show up and vote for Donnelly. Trump’s rhetoric about women, minorities, the immigrant child separations and the “caravan” scare tactics could backfire.

Trump is using the full powers of his office to help Republicans like Braun, vowing to put 15,000 troops on the Mexican border. But even some conservatives see it as pure fear-mongering. Trump had tweeted, “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” And at Southport, he said, “The Democrats want to invite caravan after caravan, and you see we have more caravans forming, don't you? I think they overplayed their hand on this one folks. Between Justice (Brett) Kavanaugh and the caravans, you people are energized." 

But Fox News anchor Shep Smith observed on Monday: “There is no invasion. No one’s coming to get you. There’s nothing at all to worry about. Tomorrow the migrants, according to Fox News reporting, are more than two months away — if any of them actually come here. But tomorrow is one week before the midterm election, which is what all of this is about.”

So, Hoosier folk, the $100 million Senate race draws to a close. Sanity will soon return to your TV sets. My parting words are simply this: Go vote. You live in a democracy. It thrives on citizen participation. Make a choice between Mike Braun or Joe Donnelly.

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.