By BRIAN A. HOWEY
and JACOB CURRY


INDIANAPOLIS – We are three weeks out and not much has changed in the Indiana U.S. Senate race. FiveThirtyEight’s data forecasting gives Sen. Joe Donnelly a 77% chance of winning reelection, with a projected vote share of 51.3%, Republican Mike Braun at 46.2% and Libertarian Lucy Brenton at 2.4%.

A Gravis Research Poll released by Real Clear Politics on Wednesday showed Donnelly with a 44-40% lead over Braun with Brenton at 7%. The margin of error is 5.1%. It’s close enought we still label it a “tossup.”

Braun has pumped another $2.4 million of his own money into his campaign. He posted $5.6 million for the third quarter after enduring some criticism from GOP operatives that he was “coasting” last month. U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly raised $3 million in the third quarter and enters the final three weeks with $4.5 million cash, compared to $1.9 million for Braun. As of Sept. 30, Donnelly had raised $8,339,000 in individual contributions (67% of all such contributions to the major-party candidates); Mike Braun had raised $4,119,000 (33%). 

Braun has led in only one poll this fall, Fox News on Sept. 8-11 by a 45-43% margin, while a subsequent Fox Poll on Sept. 29-Oct. 2 had Donnelly up 43-41% with Brenton at 6%. That was taken after the explosive Senate Judiciary testimony surrounding Justice Kavanaugh and Donnelly’s decision to vote against his nomination.

We are hearing different takes on whether “Kavanaugh effect” is still relevant, or whether other issues are beginning to take hold.

State Sen. Mike Delph, running in a tossup race in SD29 in Marion and Hamilton counties, tells HPI that the Kavanaugh effect is motivating the suburban female vote to his detriment. But House Republican Campaign Committee polling in several suburban districts around the state show voter intensity increasing among both Republican men and women. The Democratic intensity is still there, but Republicans have caught up. That’s good news for Braun.

There are four issues surfacing this past week that might overtake any Kavanaugh effect. 

ν The first is the murder of Washington Post columnist and Indiana State University graduate Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. President Trump suggests that the Saudi king and crown prince are innocent with “rogue killers” responsible for the grisly incident. But evidence grows daily that henchmen of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman were on the scene, including a forensic expert equipped with a bone saw used in what Turkish intelligence describes as a dismemberment. Americans continue to watch a video feed of Khashoggi walking into the consulate never to emerge again. Those are powerful optics.

ν Second, the Wall Street Journal reports that the budget deficit has risen from $666 billion last year to $779 billion this year, a 17% increase. This gives Sen. Donnelly cover on his vote against tax reforms, insisting that it will be our kids and grandchildren who will bear this burden. The New York Times reported Wednesday that the tax cuts are not and will not likely “pay for themselves.” NYT reporter Jim Tankersley writes: “The Congressional Budget Office predicted the government would take in $3.53 trillion in revenues for the fiscal year. On Monday, the Treasury reported that revenue was actually $3.33 trillion for the year — $200 billion short.” And this comes with the economy hitting on all cylinders. That should be good news for Braun, but this election doesn’t appear to be hinging on the robust economy. President Trump views it as a referendum on himself, though he said Tuesday that should Democrats take control of Congress, it won’t be his fault.

ν Third, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the skyrocketing deficits “very disturbing,” but blamed mandatory spending on entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. This gives Donnelly and Democrats an opening to tell voters that Republicans will seek to raise the retirement age and cut Medicare benefits. Those could be “third rail” debate points in a close race.

ν Finally, President Trump continues to denigrate women. On Tuesday, he called porn star Stormy Daniels “Horseface.” She responded by calling him “Tiny” years after their infamous one-night stand. On Sunday night, he defended his derision of Kavanaugh accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, on “60 Minutes,” saying, “Had we not made that speech, we would not have won.” While some believe this rekindles the Kavanaugh effect, it also underscores a series of nasty comments Trump has made about women. That could spur more women to turn out on Nov. 6.

While the campaigns and their Super PAC allies continue to castigate their “Mexico Joe” and “China Mike” businesses, Donnelly has succeeded in focusing much of the late campaign debate on health care issues. Donnelly assailed Braun on seeking to end pre-existing condition coverage. Braun has responded with a TV ad saying he “fought the insurance companies” and will “always” cover pre-existing conditions. But fighting over that issue should be to Donnelly’s advantage.

A Donnelly ad, in which he vows not to end ICE, seeks to build the border wall, and backed military spending increases while citing President Reagan’s “peace through strength” mantra was seen by some as a desperate move to keep Republicans from fleeing in the wake of his vote against Kavanaugh. The Donnelly campaign views it as another attempt at appealing to and slicing off a portion of the Trump base, particularly union workers who defected Democrats in 2016.

The other key ad this past week began airing last Friday and features Vice President Mike Pence. In the National Republican Senatorial Committee ad, Pence says, “President Trump and I have been delivering results to the people of Indiana every day. It’s no thanks to Sen. Joe Donnelly. When it came time to cut your taxes, Joe voted no. Repeal and replace Obamacare? Joe voted no. Even when it came time to confirm Justice Kavanaugh, Joe voted no. Indiana, it’s time vote ‘no’ on Joe and send Mike Braun to the Senate.” Suburban polling HPI has seen from Hamilton and Marion counties in late September indicates President Trump’s approve/disapprove was 41/55%, while Pence stood at 45/50%. So, this ad is another attempt to shore up Braun’s standing with the Trump base.

Donnelly downplayed the ad, telling HPI Sunday evening, “The best response is the reason he’s doing that is because he’s struggling.” That was in reference to Braun, who has trailed Donnelly in two of the last three polls by 2-3% and hasn’t been able to escape the low 40th percentile of support. Donnelly reiterated he votes with Trump 62% of the time, and 77% on his judicial nominations. The Democrat concedes he is in “a close contest; it’s hard-fought.”

Pence made the case for Braun at the Indiana Republican Fall Dinner last Friday night in Indianapolis. “A vote for Joe Donnelly is a vote to make Chuck Schumer the majority leader of the United States Senate, quite possibly,” Pence said. “I have a message, on behalf of myself and the president and conservatives everywhere, it’s time to vote ‘no’ on Joe Donnelly.”

Braun gave cautionary remarks to the GOP. “If we get it right, the conservative agenda will be in place for decades; if we get it wrong, we’re all going to be miserable for decades,” Braun said. One aspect he looked at was demographics. “The most disturbing thing in 2016, about the election, is that if Millennials had voted, we would’ve carried only two states, West Virginia and Kentucky,” Braun said. “That tells you the narrow window of opportunity we’ve got.”

While Pence was speaking in Indianapolis, former Vice President Joe Biden appeared at a Donnelly rally with Indiana Pacer star Victor Oladipo at the Hammond Civic Center. “If there’s any time we need more character in the United States Senate, it’s now,” Biden said as Donnelly looked on. “There’s a desperate need, in both parties, for women and men with character, who put their country above their party, above a president, above their own self-interests. And that’s Joe. That’s Joe Donnelly. Joe has more character in his little finger than the vast majority of the men and women I’ve worked with in my career.” Pacer Olapido told the crowd that the state is his adopted home and then said, “Vote Donnelly.”

As for the week ahead, after the debate in Westville, Donnelly noted that a bill he authored is on Trump’s desk awaiting his signature. It would allow for telemedicine options for rural counties and speed up the research by Eli Lilly and other pharma companies on non-addictive painkillers, saying that “it could change everything.” Donnelly said in Westville he expected Trump to sign it last week. Does he still expect President Trump’s signature? “I do,” Donnelly told HPI. Asked if politics might be cause for delay, Donnelly said, “I hope not. I trust the president. I think he’ll make sure it moves forward. It’s on his desk and actually I hope it happens this week.”

When President Trump signed the Right to Try bill, he gave a shout-out to Donnelly, which ended up in a TV ad for the senator. So, the president might be reluctant to give Donnelly that kind of cover here in the homestretch.

Donnelly and Braun debate again on Tuesday, Oct. 30, in Indianapolis. This race will likely remain close through that final showdown. Always in the back of everyone’s mind is that “October surprise” that could alter this race. Some thought it might be Kavanaugh. Or Khashoggi. Or it could be something we can’t foresee or fathom at this point. Horse Race Status: Tossup.