Joe Donnelly (D) is one of the most vulnerable senators up for reelection this November, and he faces an uphill battle against Republican opponent Mike Braun. Donnelly’s first victory – in the wake of Republican Richard Mourdock’s comments about rape – was one of the more impressive feats of the 2012 election. Mike Braun – a businessman and former Indiana state representative – appears a much more formidable opponent.
The 2012 Presidential election provides a useful baseline for thinking about Indiana. Indiana has an R+9 partisan lean, and Romney’s 10-point win over Obama aligns with what you’d expect from a generic Republican. Obama’s support was almost entirely confined to the capital of Indianapolis in the center of the state, and the Chicago suburb of Gary to the northwest. Obama’s collapse outside of these urban centers was notable, given that he actually won Indiana by a single point in 2008.
In contrast, Joe Donnelly remained competitive throughout the state – especially in the outlying areas around Indianapolis and Gary that Obama failed to carry. Just as importantly, Donnelly staunched the bleeding in rural parts of the state. Places where Obama routinely lost by 30-40 points, Donnelly often lost by fewer than 20. Donnelly’s enhanced rural appeal – coupled with his better suburban performance – propelled him to victory in this traditionally conservative state.
We learn more about Donnelly’s victory by comparing the loyalty of precincts across the state. In addition to the area surrounding Indianapolis, Donnelly’s popularity far out-paced Obama’s around the smaller cities of Anderson and Muncie. Almost every precinct in Starke county – south of Gary – split between Romney and Donnelly.
Finally, 2012 also saw Mike Pence’s election to the Indiana governor’s mansion. People seem to have forgotten just how narrow Pence’s victory was over former Speaker of the Indiana House John Gregg (D). Gregg represented a house district near Terre Haute, on the western border of the state, and it shows. Gregg dramatically outpaced other Democrats in this region, and it was nearly enough to carry him over the finish line. But Pence outperformed Mourdock around Indianapolis and Gary, winning there by enough to clinch victory.
Donnelly’s race against Braun is among the most closely watched contests of the year. Most forecasters view the election as a toss-up, with maybe a slight edge given to Donnelly. This is another race where Donald Trump’s presence looms large – it’s impossible to imagine Donnelly as any kind of a favorite if Hillary Clinton were president. It’s easier to imagine Democrats writing-off the race entirely, in that national environment. Donnelly has enjoyed a consistent polling lead over Braun, and his fundraising has also been more impressive. The Øptimus legislative model is bullish on Donnelly’s reelection odds, giving him a 76% chance of retaining his seat.
(Check-out my interactive map of Donnelly’s 2012 senate victory!)