Skip to content

For Joe Donnelly, a Long History of Bucking His Party

Indiana Democrat faces challenging re-election, which is also nothing new

Sen. Joe Donnelly often goes his own way on hot-button policy positions, and has since his time in the House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Joe Donnelly often goes his own way on hot-button policy positions, and has since his time in the House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — The fate of Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly’s re-election bid next year may lie in his ability to convince Hoosiers he’s not always on the same page as the national Democratic Party. Fortunately for him, he has a lot of practice, and has been highly successful at it, going back more than a dozen years.

“The party occasionally gets mad, I really don’t care,” said one of the Democrats’ most endangered incumbents.

Donnelly, a native New Yorker who went to school at Notre Dame in South Bend and stayed in the Hoosier State, first came to Congress as a House member in the 2006 Democratic wave. An anti-abortion member of the Blue Dog Coalition, he didn’t toe the party line on a range of issues.

For instance, he opposed the budget resolution in 2007, the first one written by a Democratic majority since the 1990s. He voted against the climate change legislation championed by Democrats in 2009 that would have established a cap-and-trade system on greenhouse gas emissions. He even refused to support Nancy Pelosi to be House Democratic leader in 2011, after Democrats lost their majority. Donnelly had held onto his House seat the previous year, barely, 48 percent to 47 percent against Republican Jackie Walorski.

In 2012, he ran for the Senate in what looked like a quixotic bid to unseat longtime GOP Sen. Richard G. Lugar. But Lugar lost the primary to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. And when Mourdock stumbled after suggesting that pregnancies resulting from rape might be the will of God, Donnelly was able to capitalize and win 50 percent to 44 percent, outperforming President Barack Obama, who only took 44 percent of the Hoosier vote that year, as well as Mike Pence, who won the governorship with 49 percent. Pence is now vice president. 

So it is no surprise, perhaps, that in 2017, Donnelly has embraced key aspects of President Donald Trump’s legislative agenda, openly criticizes his national party’s failures in last year’s elections, and expresses a strong willingness to support the president when it’s good for Indiana.

Man in the middle

Donnelly was one of three Democrats who voted to confirm the president’s pick for the vacant Supreme Court seat, Neil Gorsuch, a decision that provoked a backlash from some liberal Hoosiers.

Still, with Trump’s 19-point victory in Indiana last year, Republicans eye Donnelly’s seat as an opportunity to pad their Senate majority.

However, Indiana voters from all areas of the state say they want their elected officials to take a more centrist approach, which provides Donnelly with an opening.

“In this county, even though it’s Democrat, they are all conservative people,” said Tim Yocum, the first Republican elected to an area-wide seat in Indiana’s Vermillion County in nearly 30 years. “You talk about gun rights. Democrats in this county, very few of them are for gun control. That really is a big thing.”

Donnelly has taken his lumps from liberals over the years for voting against gun control measures. But if Yocum is to be believed, that probably isn’t hurting him much with many Hoosiers. 

While most individuals interviewed over the course of several days for this story voted for Trump, many said they are growing frustrated by the president’s seemingly off-hand remarks, his tendency to go rogue on social media, and the lack of any major legislative victories despite the GOP’s control of both chambers of Congress and the White House.

“I think Trump gets down in the dirt too much,” said Jon Oswalt, a registered Republican and a veterans affairs officer in Blackford County. “If he keeps to his script, he’s OK, but when he starts rambling, he gets into barroom talk. He needs to stay out of that.”

Other Trump voters agreed.

“He’s made a fool of himself too many times. And I think what’s going to happen, he’s going to cause a lot of people that normally would vote Republican, they are either going to stay home or vote for somebody else,” said Lowell Shellburna, an 80-year-old registered Republican from Montgomery County.

Donnelly knows his job is to appeal to those people.

“A lot of those Trump voters are Joe Donnelly voters,” he said in an interview aboard his RV while in the midst of a weeklong campaign tour around the state. “They aren’t worried about Democrat or Republican.”

On veterans’ issues, combating the opioid epidemic, and the economy, Donnelly supports the actions Trump has taken and the messages he peddled during the election.

“We should never worry about where the idea came from if it makes things a little bit better,” he said. “I work with him on everything that I can, to work together. And my job is to promote Indiana, to move Indiana forward, to make the lives of everyone here better.”

When asked whether that stance comes with added criticism from the left, Donnelly was quick to say yes.

“At the end of the day, I come home and do my best and that’s my job. My job isn’t to make somebody online happy,” he said.

Donnelly currently has no primary challenger, something that could give him an early head start in the race.

On the Republican side, Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita are running, setting up a potentially bruising primary. Indiana GOP voters worry about the impact that will have in the general election.

“Neither one of them are straight arrows,” Shellburna said. “The way it’s going right now is a pissing contest.”

Spokespersons for both Messer and Rokita did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Trending GOP

In 2008, after Donnelly won a second House term and Obama narrowly won the state, the Indiana congressional delegation had six Democrats and five Republicans. Republicans now hold the edge, eight to three, and have large majorities in the state General Assembly and control the governorship. 

But Donnelly is well-liked by some Republicans and several say they are likely to vote for him in 2018 despite supporting Trump last year.

“He has fought for us the whole way, for the working man,” said Terry Ashby, a 66-year-old retired coal miner from Warrick County. “We just want a person like Donnelly that tells you he is going to do something and does it. He does what he says.”

Many voters across the state echoed Ashby’s comments. They said a growing frustration with Washington, D.C., and the bickering between Republicans and Democrats led them to vote last year for an outside candidate who isn’t afraid to speak his mind.

When asked about the 2016 election, Donnelly did not mince words.

“We should have been in every town in Wisconsin, every town in Pennsylvania, every town in Ohio, every town in Iowa, every town in Indiana, knocking on doors, talking to people,” he said emphatically.

As an example, Donnelly cited Carrier’s pledge to backtrack on plans to move thousands of jobs to Mexico and instead keep them in Indiana in exchange for state tax credits. Trump heralded that decision during a visit to one of the company’s factories in December.

“I begged folks to come out and talk about the Carrier workers,” he said. “People don’t expect you to be a miracle worker, they just expect you to do your very best and have their best interests at heart. And so that’s where I think we disconnected.”

As he heads into the 2018 election and another competitive contest, Donnelly is determined not to disconnect.