By Adrianna Pitrelli
INDIANAPOLIS — One of the most hotly contested Senate races in the nation is taking place here in the Hoosier state and no matter what happens in 2018, at least two current members of Congress will be unemployed.
“If Republicans want to keep their majority [in the Senate], they have to win,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor of Inside Elections. “Republicans in Washington want to defeat Sen. Donnelly, but it also is an example of the struggle going on within the Republican party.”
U.S. Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer are among more than a half dozen Republicans vying for U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly’s seat. Whoever wins in May’s primary will go head-to-head with the incumbent next November.
As Republicans push to take the Senate seat, President Donald Trump isn’t helping the party succeed, Gonzales said.
“The Republican president is having Democratic senators over for bipartisan dinners and so he is handing the Democrats positive headlines about moderation which could help Donnelly win reelection,” Gonzales said.
Donnelly, seeking his second term, announced that he will travel to Indianapolis Wednesday with the president when Trump unveils more details about his tax cut proposal.
Because the race is seen as a toss-up by well-known organizations that analyze campaigns and elections like Cook Political Report, Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball and Inside Elections, the GOP candidates have hit the campaign ground running eight months prior to the primary.
“They’re already trying to get donors and starting to work on voters,” said Laura Merrifield Wilson, political science professor at the University of Indianapolis. “It is going to be a very interesting race, both statewide and nationally.”
U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita is one of the candidates for Indiana’s 2018 Senate race. He is running on rebuilding the military, securing the borders and reforming the tax code.
Photo by Makenna Mays, TheStatehouseFile.com
With a campaign that could span longer than a year comes a need for money and the candidates are already bringing in the funds. Donnelly leads the group with nearly $3.7 million on hand, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, but has been saving since 2013 after being elected to a six year-term. Rokita has around $2.4 million and Messer is trailing behind with a little more than $2 million.
“Both [Republican] candidates really have to look at financing,” Wilson said. “You want to have money early on to get an exponential popularity factor. Our primary is late but if you don’t have the money and don’t do well in May, then you aren’t moving on.”
Money and success don’t have a direct correlation, Gonzales said, but it’s an essential part of the campaign process, especially in a race of this caliber.
“You can be the best candidate in the world but if you don’t have money to introduce yourself to voters or to tell voters why you’re running, you have no way to get to them,” he said. “You need money to communicate your message.”
U.S. Rep. Luke Messer has served since 2013. He is running for Senate in 2018. Photo provided.
Rokita and Messer are the better-known names among the Republican challengers, but Donnelly has had six years of crisscrossing the state to meet and listen to voters.
Rokita previously served two terms as Indiana’s secretary of state from 2002 to 2010 before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Messer has been in and out of politics and has continuously served in the House of Representatives since 2013.
Most of Rokita’s funds come from large individual contributions while most of Messer’s comes from political action committee funds. But the focus is more on the small contributions that are expected to increase in early 2018.
“People want to support a winner,” Wilson said. “When people see someone surge ahead early on, they’ll want to start donating to that candidate and they’ll start to pick up momentum.”
So far, Messer leads in the support of other Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks of Carmel, but it is too soon to say who will be out front in terms of money raised.
While candidates aren’t seeing a lot of small donations yet, they’re already working to lock down donors. For small donations less than $200, Messer has received $8,447 and Rokita has raised nearly double that with $16,788.
Even though there isn’t a proven correlation between money raised and who wins, more small donations imply a candidate has more supporters. Donnelly has raised $412,949 from small individual contributions.
Indiana leans right, but it has long been a state that has voted for some Democrats for state and nationwide positions. In 2008, Hoosiers elected former President Barack Obama, but in 2012, when Donnelly won, Hoosiers voted for Republican Mitt Romney and elected Gov. Mike Pence.
Last November, Trump beat Democratic nominee-Hillary Clinton by nearly 20 percentage points and remains popular with many Hoosiers. It led The Hill, a political journalism news site, to peg Donnelly “among the most vulnerable Senate Democrats” running in 2018.
But Donnelly is a moderate and one of three Democrats nationwide who voted to confirm conservative Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
Republicans are anxious to regain the seat after a tough loss in 2012 when Donnelly beat Richard Mourdock, who had unseated the incumbent Republican, Richard Lugar, in the primary.
“Donnelly has positioned himself very well as a blue senator in a red state,” Wilson said. “The 2018 congressional midterm is a referendum for the Trump administration.”
Meanwhile, the two leading Republican challengers are working to differentiate themselves from each other and show voters he is best positioned to unseat Donnelly.
“Trump swept the state and both candidates want to stay loyal to Trump’s constituents,” Wilson said. “They’re on a constant battle to outdo each other for primaries and be able to bring themselves to the top.”
Messer is running to fix what he calls a broken U.S. Senate.
“President Trump is working to get his agenda passed and deliver for the American people, and the Senate is blocking almost every play,” Messer said. “It’s not ok to promise for seven years to repeal Obamacare, fail and walk away. The Senate was one vote short to repeal Obamacare — I would have been that vote.”
Meanwhile, Rokita is running on rebuilding the military, securing the borders and reforming the tax code.
At a rally last week led by Vice President Mike Pence to support tax reform, Rokita blasted Donnelly.
“We have a portfolio of bad votes from Joe Donnelly,” Rokita said. “He doesn’t represent Hoosiers on the whole and all that is going to come out in this campaign.”
Messer said he prefers to stay out of the drama of politics. But he recently took a stab at Donnelly via Twitter by writing, “Typical @SenDonnelly. Says one thing in Indiana and does another thing in Washington,” referring to a Donnelly quote to USA TODAY that read, “I think that Trump supporters were originally Joe Donnelly supporters and still are.”
U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly is in the midst of one of the hotly contested Senate races in 2018. Photo by Makenna Mays, TheStatehouseFile.com
With eight months until the primary election and more than a year until the general election, politicos across the board said the race is bound to get messier.
“Campaigning is a time to define yourself and define your opponent,” Gonzales said. “If you’re not out early and often doing those things, your opponent is going to do it for you.”
While the GOP rivals are campaigning against each other to decipher who will represent the Republicans in November, Donnelly’s focus is on Hoosiers.
“My focus is just on trying to do the job well,” Donnelly said.
Adrianna Pitrelli is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.