Commentary: GOP extends Donnelly a lifeline

By John Krull 

INDIANAPOLIS – No matter how determined U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, seems to be to alienate his base and lose next year’s election for his seat, it appears his Republican opponents are just as determined to find ways to keep him in the race.

John Krull, publisher,

Maybe even more so.

A few weeks ago, Donnelly enraged activist Democrats by voting to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Even the shortest tour of social media turned up angry progressives vowing never to vote for Donnelly again and saying they would search for and support a primary challenger.

These diehard Democrats were angry about many things, but primarily about the notion that they’d had a Supreme Court seat “stolen” from them through unscrupulous behavior by Senate Republicans. The GOP stalwarts refused, for nearly a year, to give former President Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland a hearing, much less a vote, citing a newly imagined precedent that the commander-in-chief loses some constitutional prerogatives in an election year as their rationale.

Progressives wanted to fight fire with fire and declare eternal resistance to President Donald Trump’s nominee.

Donnelly said, in somewhat more muted and diplomatic terms than this, that, even though he wasn’t thrilled with Gorsuch’s politics, the man was qualified to serve – and, besides, two wrongs don’t make a right.

That line of reasoning wasn’t persuasive to many members of his party. They argued that, if Donnelly was going to vote with Republicans on a matter that important, they might as well have a Republican in the Senate.

Things couldn’t be much worse if that were the case, they said.

Then the Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives worked to convince them otherwise.

On May 4, the House voted, 217-213 (and after a great deal of horse-trading and arm-twisting), for a new health care program, known now as Trumpcare. No Democrat in the House voted for it, so the GOP owns it outright.

This new plan would strip more than 20 million Americans of their coverage. It also would increase premiums for the poor, the elderly, the middle-class and the sick. It would make it difficult, if not impossible, for Americans with pre-existing conditions to get insurance.

There were some people the new bill would help.

It promised huge tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans.

As an old tune goes, the rich get richer and the poor get … Trumpcare.

The bill was such a noxious mess that Republicans in the U.S. Senate – who are not insulated as House members are from voters’ fury because statewide races can’t be gerrymandered – treated the measure as if it were a toxic waste dump and vowed to clean it up, if they couldn’t find a place to bury it, that is.

Here’s where the lifeline for Donnelly appears.

Donnelly’s two most likely challengers next year are U.S. Rep. Luke Messer, R-Indiana, and U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Indiana.

Both Messer and Rokita – you guessed it – voted in favor of the House bill.

That’s right.

They both voted to strip millions of Americans – and thousands of Hoosiers – of their health care. They voted to stick it to the poor, the elderly, the middle-class and the sick. They voted to jack up premiums for almost everyone who doesn’t have a trust fund.

They did this even though the American Medical Association and just about every other organization representing medical professionals has come out against Trumpcare. They did it even though they have no idea what it will cost because the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office hasn’t “scored” it yet to figure the price tag. They did it even though support for Trumpcare is polling at 17 percent – just slightly ahead of the number in favor of bringing back the bubonic plague.

Oh, and for good measure, in a separate episode, Rokita also found time to blame and shame the passenger for being mauled and dragged off the United Airlines flight last month.

Between them, Messer and Rokita are doing a far better job of motivating Democrats and undecideds to vote for Donnelly than he could or likely will do for himself.

That means next year’s election may not be won so much as lost.

Too bad the title “The Biggest Loser” already is taken.

It would make a great headline for Indiana’s 2018 Senate campaign coverage.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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