FORT WAYNE – Will this nonsense never end? Joe Donnelly’s brother moved a plant to Mexico, like many other such plants. Joe earned some income and then sold his stock. It was a small percentage of his income. Oh yeah, and the axe he uses in an ad appears to have been made in Mexico.

Mike Braun’s company sold auto parts made in China and Mexico. Like every other auto parts store. And some of the boxes were even labeled in Chinese and English! 

These incessant ads that badger us if we try to watch television or listen to the radio, since they cancel each other out, now turn on “He lied, but he lied worse. No, he lied worse. No, you lied more.” They act like six-year-olds facing off in front of their parents. Beyond these inane ads, there are a few other things going on in the campaign.

1.) Braun’s campaign is among the worst Senate campaigns in my lifetime. I’m not saying that he is wrong on issues, not qualified to serve as senator, a poor businessman, or anything else. Just that he has run an awful campaign. No grassroots, little money beyond his own, and after his terrific primary ads, in the fall campaign they’ve been terrible, or boring.

2.) Braun’s version of campaigning is the antithesis of a Holcomb-Daniels style effort. The general rule is this: Voters are more Republican the farther away you get from the courthouse. This tends to be true even in heavily Republican suburban areas. Therefore, Mitch went everywhere in his RV. Eric found every basketball court and interesting food spot in the state. It was not only to meet people, but also was important for symbolism: We care about everybody, not just the big cities. We are real people, not just television props. In off-year elections, turnout in those areas matters more than in the presidential years. You can win by ignoring the smaller counties, but you can also lose. When you’re running against an incumbent, generally speaking you try harder.   

3.) Braun’s ad called “Won’t Wait” is likely the worst Senate ad since Richard Roudebush, whose closing ad in his razor-thin loss to Vance Hartke in 1970 had pieces of the Republican elephant design coming together. I have seen his Google search, or whatever, ad many times and never once figured out a single point in the ad until I looked at it on-line. Even then, I don’t understand what they are trying to do. Instead of the humor and clarity of his primary ads, Braun’s fall ads are generally muddled, all over the place and worse than uninspiring: they are boring. 

4.) Donnelly’s ads, on the other hand, are crystal clear: Democrat, what’s a Democrat? Joe is running as a sort of “Trump Lite.” A little bit of wall, some changes in health care, some of the tax cuts (maybe). He was against Kavanaugh, but only chooses to stress that he was for Gorsuch, which is basically irrelevant. It was a free vote. Braun was for Kavanaugh, but that of course is apparently not as important as where Joe’s axe was made. Both fear that actually talking about the Supreme Court is more politically risky than verbally assaulting each other over labels on boxes that include more than English. 

5.) Donnelly, like he did against Mourdock (my way or the highway criticism which was then reenforced by Mourdock’s debate gaffe on abortion), has a thematic framework that has filled-in parts of his “What’s a Democrat?” theme. He has walked across bridges, chopped wood and tried every other analogy to suggest that in Washington there are three parties: Republicans, Democrats, and Hoosiers (as in “I stand with the people of Indiana”). His committee assignments, amendments and what votes he casts will be determined by whether he organizes with the liberal Democrat leadership, not Hoosiers.

6.) If grassroots matter at all, Donnelly wins. He’s likable. Not fake likable; Joe is actually likable. He chose to be a Democrat and I chose to be a Republican, but we were good friends, genuine friends. That said, while it is preferable that we have likable people representing us, the political votes one casts – especially organizational ones – are more important than being friendly when running for senator in a closely divided Senate. You’re not electing a Rotary Club president. Many people don’t feel Braun is likable. I don’t know him so I don’t know. In his avoidance of grassroots campaigning, Braun appears to be like many successful businessmen, who know how to run a business but they don’t especially like regular people. If this election is determined by who seems most likable, Donnelly wins in a walk.

7.) If the race is between Donnelly and Braun, Donnelly wins. If it is nationalized, Donnelly loses. That has been apparent since at least 2016, maybe since 2012. In other words, there is one issue that will motivate Republicans. We all know it. It is not 7,500 people marching toward the border like an invasion force, though that is part of it. It is not Judge Kavanaugh, or other court appointments, though that is part of it. It is not the turnaround of the American economy, though that is part of it. It is not rebuilding our national defense as the world becomes increasingly dangerous, though that, too, is part of it. The issue is this: Who is going to control the Senate? A single issue. Yet, somehow, even as people have begun voting, we are still mired in ads about who loves or hates Mexico the most. The Republicans, in particular, need to re-focus this right now or even the rightward tilt of Indiana will result in Indiana’s vote in the Senate siding with the Democrats in how the body is organized. In other words, it is decisive in all the above issues. Joe would not have the opportunity to vote for Gorsuch, or part of a wall, or some Obamacare reform, or some tax cuts, if the Democrats control the Senate. That is the issue.

8.) Anyone or any poll who projects this race at this point is guessing – pure and simple guessing. Turnout is critical. Turnout isn’t a national question, or even a statewide stat. What matters is who turns out where in critical sub-sections of districts. It cannot be tracked with 370 people or 3,700 people polled. One poll claimed 90% of the voters intended to vote in this off-year election. Yeah, right. It may be high, but likely will be closer to the norm than it will be to 90%. And where turnout is high is what will matter – how many from which sub-clusters (e.g. will Republican conservative women vote more than Democrat-leaning women?) and from which specific geographical areas (which tend to be reflective of those sub-clusters). Right now, the only thing in Indiana we can predict with confidence is this: Joe Donnelly will either be reelected or defeated by a margin somewhere between significant or a cliff-hanger. But unless Braun and the Republicans get focused in these last two weeks, Donnelly will not only over-perform, he may actually win in a state that, on the surface, right now should be an easy GOP victory. 

Souder is a former Republican congressman from Indiana.