Republicans hoping to take back a Senate seat in Indiana said an ad by Indiana’s Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, backing the idea of a wall on the Mexican border and supporting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), showed the Democrat was becoming “desperate.”
But Donnelly’s campaign said Tuesday that the ad, titled “Peace Through Strength,” is consistent with its message throughout the campaign.
“It is a strong ad, but in terms of message, I don’t think it’s a theme we haven’t been hitting,” a Donnelly campaign official said.
Republicans interpreted the ad as a sign of weakness. The Indiana race is one of the tightest in the country, and if Democrats want to retain any hope of capturing control of the Senate, they have to hold this seat.
“That’s a pretty desperate-looking ad,” Indiana GOP Chairman Kyle Hupfer said. “I think he sees the internals on his side. We’re seeing internals on our side that show [Republican Mike] Braun surging. I think [Donnelly]’s desperate to find something to hold on to.”
Hupfer said Republican internal tracking polls have Braun leading Donnelly “outside the margin of error,” which is a reference to polling that usually sits around 3 or 4 points.
In Donnelly’s new ad, he denounces the “radical left” and rejects calls by some Democrats to “abolish” ICE. “I support ICE [and] funding President Trump’s border wall,” Donnelly says.
Calls to #abolishICE became popular with progressives when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed the idea in her upset primary win in a New York congressional race. Leading Democrats who are likely to run for president in 2020, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., have backed the idea.
Donnelly also distances himself in the ad from the idea of universal health care, which is popular with progressive Democrats, calling it “socialized medicine.” That’s a derogatory term used by conservatives for the last half-century to criticize calls for a greater government role in paying for health care coverage.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, independent-Vt., a popular figure on the left who garnered widespread support in his unsuccessful challenge to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, is a major backer of universal health care and will be in Indiana Friday to begin a nine-state tour to endorse and support Democratic candidates. Sanders will not be in Indiana for Donnelly, but rather for Liz Watson, a candidate for Congress in the Hoosier State’s Ninth Congressional District in the southern part of the state.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading early contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination, campaigned for Donnelly in the state last Friday, the same night that current Vice President Mike Pence — the former governor of Indiana — was campaigning for Braun, a businessman, and state legislator.
Donnelly even associates himself with a Republican folk hero when discussing his support for increasing military spending. “As President Reagan said, peace through strength,” Donnelly says.
The Donnelly campaign official, who asked to speak anonymously to more frankly discuss strategy, said that the new ad is in line with the overarching theme of Donnelly’s candidacy, which is that he is “not captive to the extremes.”
“The point we’re trying to make is that Joe isn’t captive to either party, especially to the extreme of either party,” the Donnelly official said. “He puts Indiana over his party. That’s a message we’re trying to hammer home.”
The new and does have a line in it that denounces “extremes of the left and right” who “want to cut defense spending.” But in a conservative state like Indiana, Donnelly has to lean right on the political tightrope he must walk.
Donnelly voted against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court earlier this month, after voting in favor of Trump’s first nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, in 2017. Hupfer said Republican voters were “angry with Joe Donnelly” because of his vote against Kavanaugh.
Public polling has yet to show significant damage to Donnelly because of the Kavanaugh vote, but there has not been much survey data. Yet a Fox News poll conducted at the beginning of October, after Donnelly had come out against Kavanaugh, showed the Democrat with a 3.7 point lead.
Cam Savage, a Republican consultant in Indiana who works for Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., said the Kavanaugh vote probably affected the race, but that it’s not the biggest factor.
“The biggest change is that the spending disparity has disappeared. Donnelly and his allies were able to hammer Braun all summer,” Savage said. “Once that evened out post-Labor Day, knowing the state, knowing that Donnelly had been stuck in the mid to low the 40s for a year, it made sense that the race would close, and that’s what you’re seeing.”
Savage said he did not have access to internal polls but said Donnelly’s campaign decisions of late have indicated to him that the Democrat “seems to think he’s playing from behind.”
The latest ad, Savage said, “was almost as if to say, ‘I’m a Republican’ or ‘I’m a Republican-lite. I’m Republican enough for you,’” Savage said. “And those are not the sort of things that a campaign that’s in control or comfortable with their position would do.”