By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – It would be easy to consign Mike Braun’s epic, not-even-close upset of U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly to a Democratic blunder on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

Donnelly, along with U.S. Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and Claire McCaskill all voted against Kavanaugh and lost emphatically. West Virginia Democrat U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin supported Kavanaugh and won easily.

Until the allegations of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford surfaced in mid-September, Donnelly had narrow poll advantages and Democratic voter intensity far outpaced Republicans. He was a plausible and probable yea vote on Kavanaugh, which had that occurred, might have left this race on more parochial footing.

After the sensational Ford/Kavanaugh showdown, and Donnelly’s decision to vote against Kavanaugh, the Republican base was ignited in a race now nationalized. 

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday, around 300,000 Hoosiers voted early, vastly outpacing the 2014 mid-term and even the 2016 presidential race. On Election Day, a plethora of media outlets reported record mid-term voting as long lines wrapped around voting centers nationwide.

“I think the Kavanaugh effect was real,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who campaigned with Braun at the Allen County Republican Bean Dinner and in Mishawaka last week. “I have never seen anything unite like Republicans did since then.” Graham added that Braun and other Senate Republicans won due to “Kavanaugh, caravan and a good economy.”

Democrat decimation

The Donnelly loss – by 152,693 votes with 93% reporting this morning – which completes the modern decimation of the Indiana Democratic Party after an eight-year slide, came due to the party’s severe under-performance in its remaining bastions – Lake and Marion counties, and the university cities – and its virtual unilateral withdrawal from rural Indiana where only ousted House Minority Leader Terry Goodin represents a mostly agrarian district. 

Donnelly had a mere 50,000 vote plurality out of Lake County and just a 52,000 vote edge out of Marion County (though 30,000 absentees remain to be counted today). In his home St. Joseph County, he carried just 54%, winning by just under 9,000 votes. He won Tippecanoe County by just 7%, or a little less than 4,000 votes, and Monroe County with 60%, or by a little under 7,000 votes. Donnelly and Braun were in a virtual tie in bellwether Vigo County, separated by a mere 20 votes, while Donnelly carried Vanderburgh by less than 400 votes. There are still absentee ballots to be counted in Indy and 22,000 to be counted in St. Joseph and a significant number in Vanderburgh, so some of these pluralities will change over the next few days.

In 2012, Donnelly won Lake County by 74,000 votes, Indianapolis by 120,000 votes, Monroe County by 12,000, St. Joseph by 15,000 votes, and Vigo by 8,000.

If you’re an Indiana Democrat, you have to be asking why the now two current titular heads, U.S. Reps. Pete Visclosky and Andre Carson, weren’t more active in the two remaining blue congressional districts that wildly under-performed for Donnelly this time, with epic stakes for the state party on the line.

To show how the Indiana Democratic Party has eroded, the contrasts with Evan Bayh’s 1998 U.S. Senate win over Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke are jarring. Bayh won Lake County by 59,000 votes and Marion County by 47,000 votes. In St. Joseph, Bayh won by 26,000 votes and Monroe by just under 8,000 votes. To take that contrast further, Bayh won Elkhart with 52% of the vote, and carried river counties Gibson (73%), Floyd (68%), Crawford (70%), Clark (72%), Posey (74%), Vigo (76%) and Sullivan (79%). All of those counties went Republican this time, many in the 60th percentile.

Braun won Hamilton County by 11,000 votes, by 10,000 in Hancock, just under 5,000 in Boone, just under 14,000 in Hendricks, and by 15,000 votes in Johnson. Total, Braun won by the doughnut counties by about 50,000, off-setting Marion.

But in outer Indiana, Braun rolled up big pluralities across what Vice President Mike Pence has long called the “amber waves of grain,” winning Gibson County with 64%, Jackson County with 65%, Jasper with 66%, Jennings with 65%, Kosciusko with 70%, 66% in Lawrence, 67% in Montgomery, 70% in Morgan, 66% in Putnam, 73% in Ripley, 73% in Dearborn, 69% in Decatur, 75% in Daviess, 65% in Shelby, 72% in Wells, 67% in Whitley, 68% in LaGrange, 63% in Harrison, and with 58% in Elkhart, by 10,000 votes there. Spread out across the 80 or so rural counties, Braun rolled up much of his 152,000 plurality. For Donnelly, it was death by 80 localized cuts.

It isn’t as if President Trump’s policies have gone without serious consequence. Decatur, Tippecanoe and Gibson counties are home to sprawling Japanese auto plants that have been hit by Trump’s tariffs. The rest are prime farm counties, where soybean farmers have seen the president’s tariffs ransack commodity prices. Trump was able to engineer a $12 billion bailout for this year, and many of these farmers (79% in a national poll published by Hoosier Ag Today) are sticking with the president, believing he has a long-term vision. Many soybean farmers are switching to corn for the 2019 planting season.

A staple of Donnelly’s reelection narrative was that he had visited all 92 counties every year. Donnelly put an earnest to jovial face on his version of the Democratic brand, but in rural Indiana it just didn’t compete with the straight-talking, no-nonsense Braun who promised to take his executive prowess to Washington to solve the health care problems in the same fashion he did for his company, Meyer Distributing.

A nationalized race with Trump

Braun, with the assistance of President Trump, nationalized the race. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence rallied to Braun’s side two days after the primary in Elkhart. In late August, an Evansville MAGA rally supplied Braun and national Super PACs with video and audio bytes that served as the thrust of his homestretch advertising campaign.

Then Trump came back to Indiana three times in the final two weeks (including the Future Farmers of America convention), where he burnished the fears of a migrant caravan that made it to Mexico City by Election Day. He vowed to put 15,000 U.S. troops on the border and threatened to close it down. Trump branded “Sleepy Joe” as resisting Kavanaugh and opposing his tax cuts (which polls show are not popular here in Indiana nor nationally). He also warned his supporters that Democrats would raise taxes and open the borders to breeders, rapists, thieves and M-13 gang members. Hoosier voters responded to the dog whistles.

“There’s only one way to stop this Democat-led assault on America’s sovereignty. You have to vote Republican tomorrow,” Trump told more than 10,000 people at the Fort Wayne Coliseum. “This election is about safety, and this election is about jobs. For years, you watched as we let foreign countries plunder our wealth, shutter our factories and steal our jobs. But those days are over. And in case you haven’t noticed our country is respected again.”

At these MAGA rallies – more than 20,000 turned out in Fort Wayne and Southport in the final four days of the campaign – Hoosier voters lapped up the rhetoric. Braun embraced Trump. He stuck to his strict talking points, avoided the press after debates, and, unlike 2012 GOP nominee Richard Mourdock, didn’t make a mistake. His media strategy wasn’t nearly as good during the general campaign as it was in the primary when he triumphed over U.S. Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita by designating them as cardboard cutout “twins.” When the dust settled on Tuesday night, he had retired three sitting members of Congress. U.S. Sen. Todd Young was with him on stage at the J.W. Marriott Tuesday night, himself defeating four former members (Mike Sodrel, Baron Hill, Marlin Stutzman and Evan Bayh). The new Hoosier Senate tandem has been a status quo wrecking crew on Capitol Hill.

Donnelly tried to make a case for Obamacare, though he mostly touted his support for legal protections for those with “pre-existing conditions” that Trump and Braun would take away. He tried to find cover on his Kavanaugh rejection by reminding voters he voted for Justice Neil Gorsuch. But Hoosier voters believed that Kavanaugh got screwed by ancient, prep-day allegations that could never be proved. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein ended up doing as much damage to Donnelly as President Trump did.

While state and national polls put concerns over health care far above immigration (41% to 23% in an NBC exit poll), Hoosiers voted for Trump on his self-proclaimed “referendum on me” campaign, with Braun the most conspicuous benefactor.

“What we need to do is to take to Washington what works in the real world. What works in Jasper, Indiana, or Warsaw, Indiana,” the victorious Braun told jubilant Republicans at the J.W. Marriott, adding that he wanted to bring people to “fix things in a dysfunctional system. That’s my goal.”

Braun described four limo rides with President Trump. “Trump unplugged on four rides,” Braun said with wonderment as the crowd hooted. “He asked, ‘Do you think we ought to bring Bobby Knight in your campaign?’ Promises made, promises kept.” And the crowd went wild. Last Friday, Braun found himself on stage with Trump, Pence and Coach Knight for the Southport rally.

Donnelly addressed somber Democrats around 9:25 p.m., telling supporters that he “had the unbelievable opportunity to serve the people.” He applauded his staff, told them he would always be there for them, and added, “I’ve been filled up so much by you. We love this country so much. We need to make sure we bring this country together rather than divide it. We’re all in the same boat together. We’re all American.”

Trump redefines the GOP

The Washington Post’s Robert Costa, a Notre Dame graduate, put it in a national context: “Trump has fundamentally redefined the modern Republican Party, lurching a historically free-trade institution toward protectionism on trade and infusing its appeals with racially charged conspiracy theories, rampant demagoguery and proud declarations that he is ‘absolutely a nationalist.’” 

Mike Braun was an eager adherent.

Costa continued: “Those cracks, however, have mostly been papered over as conservatives have relished their influence inside the White House and Republican majorities in both congressional chambers, beaming behind Trump in the Rose Garden and Oval Office as he has scribbled his signature on their bills. They have celebrated his role in revamping the federal judiciary, passing a sweeping tax cut and significantly increasing funding for the U.S. military.”

The irony there is that on a few of those Donnelly bills, President Trump’s scribbled signature was used to make a case that the Democrat backed the president “62% of the time.” 

A majority of Hoosier voters were looking for a 100%.