Blasting Donnelly, Trump Previews Campaigner-in-Chief Role
Last fall, President Trump traveled to Indiana and made a promise: If the state’s Democratic senator, Joe Donnelly, didn’t vote for Republicans’ tax bill, Trump would return to the Hoosier State to campaign against him “like you wouldn’t believe.”
On Thursday, he made good on that promise.
Two days after Republicans selected Mike Braun, a businessman and former state legislator, as the party’s nominee to face the incumbent this fall, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence held a rally in Elkhart, Ind., meant to unify the party after a bloody primary and refocus attention on Donnelly, using a new nickname: “Sleepin’ Joe.”
“This November Indiana will face an important choice: You can send a really incredible swamp person back to the Senate like Joe Donnelly, or you can send us Republicans, like Mike Braun, to drain the swamp," Trump said.
It is likely to become a familiar sight as the midterms approach: Trump in a state that overwhelmingly supported him in 2016, bashing the Democratic senator he and his party are trying to defeat. For Republicans, it represents a central part of their plan to increase their majority in the upper chamber.
“Air Force One makes a lot of noise when it lands,” said Cam Savage, a veteran strategist in Indiana.
Republicans hold a slim 51-49 advantage in the Senate, but Democrats are defending 25 seats to Republicans’ nine, and 10 of those incumbent Democrats are running in states Trump won in 2016. Five of those states -- Indiana, West Virginia, North Dakota, Missouri and Montana -- voted overwhelmingly for the president.
Trump has already made campaigning in those states a priority. Last year, along with Indiana, he traveled to North Dakota and Missouri to threaten Democratic senators on the tax bill, which ultimately passed with only Republican support. Earlier this year, he held rallies to boost GOP Senate candidates in West Virginia and Ohio ahead of their primaries, and has held a fundraiser for Josh Hawley in Missouri. Marc Short, the president’s legislative affairs director, promised Trump would visit Montana after attacking Sen. Jon Tester for his role in tarnishing Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, who ultimately withdrew.
Patrick Morrisey, the West Virginia attorney general who won the Tuesday primary to face Joe Manchin this fall, welcomed Trump’s intervention in the coming race.
“You’ve been to this state now four times. I’d like you to come back as many times as you can between now and November,” Morrisey said during his victory speech.
Braun won the Indiana primary by more successfully appealing to Trump’s supporters, using his business background to compare himself to Trump, while his rivals, both members of Congress, fought their campaigns over support for the president. Braun said repeatedly during the primary that Trump’s victory in 2016 was his inspiration to run for office, a line he repeated Thursday.
“I’m a businessman and outsider just like our president, and you can count on me to be a true reinforcement and the guy that is going to retire Joe Donnelly,” Braun said.
Still, Democrats aren’t convinced. A spokesman for the state Democratic Party pointed out that Rep. Luke Messer, one of the candidates who lost the primary Tuesday, wasn’t in attendance at the rally.
“The biggest takeaway from last night – not even President Trump can heal the wounds of the nastiest race in politics,” said Michael Feldman.
Democrats expect plenty of Trump rallies throughout the election cycle, and in many ways those events reinforce the central deciding factor of the midterms: Democrats are relying on strong personal brands in their states to win crossover support from Independents and moderate Republicans, while Republicans hope Trump’s popularity will extend down the ballot and rally his base for their candidates.
Donnelly showcased exactly how they’re likely to do that. His campaign released its second ad of the cycle ahead of the president’s visit, showing the Democrat standing on a bridge to emphasize his centrism and willingness to reach across the aisle. Donnelly said he represents the “Hoosier common-sense middle,” a phrase he used in ads during his first successful run for Senate in 2012.
“It's okay that the President and Vice President are here today for politics, but problems only get solved when you roll up your sleeves and put in the hard work,” Donnelly said in a statement after the president’s rally. “I'm Indiana's hired help in the Senate because I don't work for any president or any political party -- I work for Hoosiers, and that will never change."
It’s a strategy that’s likely to be repeated every time Trump visits a state with a Democratic incumbent: acknowledge the visit, but don’t engage with the president.
“It doesn’t matter who comes to town, voters just want someone who puts their interests first. That’s what these Senate Democrats have done and what they should keep focusing on,” said one Senate campaign aide.
And even as Republicans work hard to align themselves to Trump in the primaries, Democrats hope that his popularity in these states won’t trickle down come November.
“Trumpy-ness is not transferable,” Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper said to a local newspaper following that state’s primary Tuesday.