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‘I’m the other Joe’: Biden stumps for Donnelly to energize Dem base in Indiana

Former Vice President Joe Biden praised Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) as a man of character, and joked that he told him at the start of the campaign he would come to Indiana to rally for or against him, whichever was more helpful. | Darron Cummings/AP Photo

Elections

In red-state Senate races, Democrats work a high-wire balance between energizing their base and winning over Republican voters.

HAMMOND, Ind. –– With early voting underway in his battleground reelection campaign, Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) turned to red-state Democrats’ best national surrogate to gin up enthusiasm among his base: former Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden peppered his speech here Friday night with red-meat applause lines for the hundreds of enthusiastic Democrats in the crowd: he talked of protecting health care and coverage for pre-existing conditions, gave shout-outs to union and middle-class households and criticized the current administration, saying that “basic American values are under assault” and President Donald Trump is “cratering” America’s reputation abroad.

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Biden praised Donnelly as a man of character, and joked that he told him at the start of the campaign he would come to Indiana to rally for or against him, whichever was more helpful — a nod to Donnelly’s tough path to reelection as a moderate Democrat in a red state.

His speech also included a very specific call to arms: Biden gave the crowd the address of the county courthouse and a website to check their polling locations, and implored them to vote early.

“We win back the Senate, you’re going to see about seven U.S. Senators flip overnight,” Biden said to cheers from the crowd. “Not to be Democrats, but to vote their conscience.”

The event, which took place in a gym at the local civic center a few miles from the Illinois border, also featured a surprise guest: NBA player Victor Oladipo, an Indiana University basketball alumnus who currently plays for the Indianapolis Pacers, who endorsed Donnelly.

The rally underscores the high-wire balancing act for red-state Democrats: finding ways to tap into the sky-high enthusiasm among their Democratic base while avoiding any damage to their carefully crafted moderate brands. Democrats are fighting in a handful of toss-up states as they aim to chip away at Republicans’ 51-49 majority in the Senate.

Biden’s visit was a split screen with Vice President Mike Pence, the former governor of Indiana, who was in Indianapolis on Friday to headline the state party’s annual dinner and will be rallying with Republican Senate hopeful Mike Braun on Saturday.

“I have a message for my fellow Hoosiers: on behalf of myself, the president and conservatives everywhere, it’s time to vote no on Joe Donnelly,” Pence said.

Republicans have worked hard to exploit Democrats’ balancing act. Earlier this week, former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who is running for Senate in the state, received backlash from some campaign volunteers for supporting Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court after facing heavy pressure from Republicans on the issue. In Missouri, Republican Josh Hawley’s Senate campaign released a TV ad showing a clip of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) saying she could afford to lose some votes in the state’s rural Bootheel if turnout was high around St. Louis. (In the full clip, McCaskill says she’s working hard to earn votes everywhere.)

Donnelly rarely brings in national figures to campaign in Indiana. But John Anzalone, a top Democratic pollster, said Biden is the unique national Democrat who doesn’t risk turning off voters even in red states.

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“In places like the Midwest, he’s popular, he’s without a doubt kind of the voice of the middle class and the working class,” Anzalone said. “So is Joe Donnelly. It’s lunchpail Joe.”

Republicans, however, view Biden’s visit as a sign of concern for Democrats: if Donnelly needs to rally enthusiasm in the state’s Democratic territory, they argue, it means he’s struggling to hang on to the Republican crossover support he needs to win. Republicans have argued that Donnelly both cost himself moderate Republican support and energized the GOP base against him after he opposed now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

“This is the last piece of ground you want to give up,” said Cam Savage, a top Republican consultant in Indiana. “If they’re fighting over Northwest Indiana, they’ve already fought everywhere else they can fight.”

Democrats aren’t fighting over votes in Northwest Indiana so much as scrapping to make sure turnout is high. Gary and Hammond, two of the ten largest cities in the state, both sit in Lake County, right across the border from Chicago. Donnelly won nearly 7 out of every 10 votes in the county in 2012, and even ran ahead of Biden and President Barack Obama’s margin here.

“Six years ago, they said I could never win the U.S. Senate race, and I said wait ‘til you see what happens in Northwest Indiana,” Donnelly said to cheers.

“Joe Donnelly for the last six years has had to balance the fact that this is a Republican state that voted heavy for President Trump. Sen. Donnelly had to keep that in the back of his mind and keep the base happy,” said Thomas McDermott, the Democratic mayor of Hammond. “It hasn’t always been an easy ride for him.”

McDermott said Donnelly has been to the city close to 60 times during his first term as a senator, and said that hustle helps him earn votes.

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Mike Jones, 65, a mechanical engineer from Muncie, said at the rally Friday that it bothers him to see Donnelly work closely with Trump and Republicans as often as he does. But he understands the situation Donnelly is in, and said he still plans to cast a vote for him.

“I wish he was a lot more left of center. That would better represent my feeling about things, but he isn’t and he’s what we’ve got,” Jones said. “When it comes down to the super important things, he’s going to represent the Democrats well enough.”

Kim Ferraro, 62, from Crown Point, showed up to the rally wearing Bernie Sanders and Planned Parenthood buttons pinned to a Michelle Obama T-shirt. She said she probably wouldn’t have come to the rally if not for Biden, but said she planned to vote for Donnelly.

“He votes with the Ds when he needs to and I think that he’s a good fit for Indiana,” Ferraro said. “I’m wearing a Bernie Sanders pin so I’m way left of him, but I am satisfied with the job he’s doing. I am thrilled with the fact that he voted ‘no’ on Kavanaugh. I’m in his camp.”

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