FORT WAYNE – The U.S. Senate election in Indiana was perceived to be a pivotal showdown for control of that body. It was supposed to be another test of the Republican-lite strategy employed by Evan Bayh to carry Indiana, a method he conceived after watching his father fall in an upset to Dan Quayle in 1980. 

What is hard to remember, even for those who remember that there were two Bayhs, is that the time span from 1980 until now is the same amount of time between Truman’s transition to Eisenhower and 1980. Things change, even in Indiana.

Since Evan Bayh was crushed by Todd Young in 2016, the question lingered: Would Joe Donnelly become the new Evan Bayh? Republicans argued that Donnelly was an accidental senator, only winning because of Richard Mourdock’s mistake in 2012. While I felt Mourdock probably would have won, I never felt that Donnelly’s win was pure luck or an accident. The race was already close, and it should not have been.

Donnelly had maximized his opportunity, and thus was ready when a mistake occurred. That’s different than being an accident. Recent appointments to fill a statewide slot like Dan Coats and Eric Holcomb show that you still have to capitalize on a surprise opportunity. 

But there is no doubt that it is a lot easier to capitalize on such an opportunity if you are a Republican in Indiana. That’s important to understand, because in a general election there are many other factors at play beyond the candidates. In the 3rd CD this election, Congressman Jim Banks ran a flawless campaign on top of very successful two-year first term. He defined who he was – a veteran and social conservative who also favored economic conservatism. He stressed his military service and support in most of his ads, but was bold in stating his pro-life, pro-gun, pro-tax cut views as well. Banks also received an award for his sterling constituent service.

However, his opponent Courtney Tritch had looked like a promising candidate. She proved to be a total flop. To illustrate that point, look at the facts: In 2016 Jim Banks won 70.1% of the vote. His opponent Tommy Schrader didn’t even file a campaign report. In 2014, Marlin Stutzman won 65.8% of the vote. His opponent Justin Kuhnle raised just $101,000.

This year, Tritch raised $883,696. Democrats were excited. This was to be a big breakthrough. There was a blue wave coming. Donnelly would be a strong top of the ticket (he did run far ahead of Tritch). Instead, Banks only received 0.3% of the vote less than Stutzman did in 2014, when his opponent couldn’t even mount a campaign. In fact, Banks’s percentage wasn’t much higher against Schrader, a sad case of a homeless guy without a job who had been disowned by the Democrats. It was among the worst defeats in the district’s history, going all the way back to when the Fort Wayne district was created.

Money matters, but not always. Braun essentially bought a Senate nomination with his contributions to his own campaign. He was competing against two well-funded, well-known congressmen, so Braun had to demonstrate some election experience (as a state legislator and on the school board), clear business success, and commitment to conservative values. He also had to show in the debates that he was a plausible version of an Indiana Trump. He did. But without the money, he would have been buried.

Congressman Trey Hollingsworth certainly didn’t win his initial nomination in 2016 based on long-term community involvement, local politics, and a campaign ground game. He established his conservative credentials through his ads funded by personal investment. Republicans chose him as their preferred advocate, and then rejected any Democrat opposition. He has now defeated two credible candidates, certainly more credible than Tritch, by large margins (though not by as much as Banks’s victories).

Issues do matter.

Greg Pence had both name recognition with a positive association, and money, though not his own. He didn’t win through creative use of free media, though anytime the name “Pence” was aired or written anywhere in the district, no matter which Pence it was, it certainly worked to his advantage. As Donald Trump has proven, “brand” marketing, especially when associated with issues favored by a majority of voters, is a key to winning elections. Greg Pence proved that both name ID and issues matter.

In large part, the two-party system has served America well. Sometimes it fails, but no system is perfect. For years, the assumption was that if a Republican was running for office in a Democrat area, the Republican had to move to the middle to win – vice versa for a Democrat. That is what Evan Bayh and Joe Donnelly did.

Donnelly did as good a job portraying that image as anyone humanly could. He stressed this split personality in every way he could, short of wearing a “Make American Great Again” hat on the campaign trail. Had the Democrat nominee been a card-carrying, charismatic socialist like Bernie Sanders, he might have turned out more Democrats, but lost many of the voters Donnelly added from the middle. It is not clear whether the peak vote of a strong liberal advocate like Mayor Peter Buttigieg might have matched Donnelly’s vote. Donnelly’s 2018 tally (losing by 8 points) might be as high as an avowed liberal can achieve, whereas this election probably was toward the lower end of Donnelly’s potential vote because of other factors that also hurt him. 

Those other factors include: 1) the female trio of Republican state elected officials – Secretary of State Connie Lawson, Treasurer Kelly Mitchell, and Auditor Tera Klutz – that won with from 57% to 60% of the vote. The closest race among the seven winning Republican congressional campaigns was Jackie Walorski, who won with 56.3%. The next closest was Hollingsworth at 59.6%. The Democrats won Lake and Marion counties. As big as they are, you don’t win Indiana with just two of nine districts. Not to mention the Republican state legislative super-majorities, another drag on any hope Donnelly had. 

For Donnelly, if he hoped to straddle the middle of the road successfully, he would have needed to join with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin in voting for Judge Kavanaugh. He did not. He likely would not have won anyway, and the Democrat base vote might have declined further, but Donnelly’s decision certainly undermined his credibility on abortion to many people and his claim of supporting Trump. While he viewed the Kavanaugh vote a different way, the fact is that to pro-life supporters it was “the” most important pro-life issue. It was also the last high-profile vote during the election cycle. Had the Supreme Court nomination votes been reversed, voting against Kavanaugh early and for Gorsuch during the election cycle, Donnelly would likely have gained some votes. But he voted his conscience (even if I didn’t agree) knowing the risk. 

So, issues matter.

Then there was the Trump factor. The president crusaded here, joined by Bobby Knight in Southport and Lou Holtz in Fort Wayne. President Obama came in to promote Democrat turnout, which just waved a red flag in front of the rest of the state. But who was Donnelly supposed to bring in – Schumer? Pelosi? Bill or Hillary? 

Maybe Alec Baldwin?

We Republicans can only hope that the Democrats will decide that their path to victory is to be openly liberal, instead of trying to run away from their national party. These things go in cycles, but if the Democrats want to try to veer left, perhaps – from a Republican perspective – they can extend our dominance even longer. We can always hope that they learn the wrong lessons. 

Souder is a former Republican congressman from Indiana and a regular HPI contributor.