INDIANAPOLIS – Vice President Mike Pence strode to the stage Saturday morning with a clear message for his home-state GOP comrades.
“They keep talking about this blue wave across America,” Pence said during a rally for businessman Mike Braun, Sen. Joe Donnelly’s (D-IN) opponent. “But if Indiana does our part, the red wall starts here.”
Donnelly is one of a number of red-state Democrats whose personal likability and independent brands kept them ahead of their GOP Senate opponents for much of the summer and gave Democrats hope they could win enough red states to seize the Senate. But then came the unexpected confirmation saga of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. While surveys indicate a majority of Americans opposed Kavanaugh’s confirmation, it seems to have sparked an intense level of polarization on both sides just as campaign season arrived in earnest.
That’s a problem for red-state Senate Democratic candidates who opposed Kavanaugh like Donnelly, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), the only one in the group who supported Kavanaugh. Democrats likely need to win three of these four races to win back the Senate, a prospect that looks increasingly difficult, and pick up seats in Nevada and Arizona that don’t look as much like slam dunks as they did weeks ago. If most lose, Democrats will lose ground in the Senate — a real possibility.
Standing athwart this polarization is Donnelly, a folksy Democrat who prides himself on his independence and “Hoosier values.”
Recent surrogate visits to the state show how important the race is. Pence’s return home came the same weekend that former Vice President Joe Biden rallied for Donnelly in northwest Indiana, a union-heavy region in suburban Chicago that’s one of Democrats’ few strongholds around the state.
Biden was careful to stress Donnelly’s bipartisan bona fides even as he revved up the partisan Democratic crowd.
“Joe understands that it’s not weakness to reach across the aisle and reach compromise without giving up on any of your principles. Joe understands our system cannot function without consensus,” Biden declared.
How Donnelly defends his vote against Kavanaugh is telling.
“I voted for Justice Gorsuch and I would vote for Justice Gorsuch today. But I was very concerned about the way [Kavanaugh] conducted himself,” the senator told TPM Sunday after rallying the troops at a local Democratic headquarters in Merrillville. “I stood strong with President Trump to say look, I would be more than happy to find you another nominee who can serve.”
Donnelly’s Kavanaugh vote was brought up unprompted by voters at both his rally and Braun’s.
Rhea Arthur attended the Pence-Braun rally in Indianapolis Saturday morning, and said she’d been leaning towards voting for Donnelly — until the Kavanaugh vote.
“I did like Donnelly. But he’s not thinking about Indiana people. He’s thinking about his [party] leaders,” she said.
Arthur voted for Republican Richard Mourdock in 2012 even after he made a major gaffe about rape and abortion. Donnelly won that race by a six-point margin.
Republicans think Kavanaugh has helped them in Indiana, where early voting started Oct. 10. One Braun ally said it was the “first mistake” the savvy Donnelly had made all campaign. But they don’t seem to see it as a silver bullet.
Pence went after Donnelly’s Kavanaugh vote in his speech at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis Saturday, but only as part of a litany of slights towards Trump including his votes against the GOP tax cuts and defunding Planned Parenthood.
“Joe voted no,” he intoned time after each example, a line he’s also used against Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) — and would likely use against any Democrat named Joe.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s latest ad, featuring Pence, hits Donnelly on the vote as well, as does a spot from the National Rifle Association.
Braun himself hasn’t been leaning that hard into Kavanaugh on the trail and in his paid advertising. He didn’t even mention the vote during a quick stump speech morning as he introduced Pence. His latest ad mentions Donnelly’s vote against confirming the justice only briefly, before pivoting into an attack on Donnelly’s past support for Hillary Clinton.
His campaign has focused less on specific policy issues and more on hammering home the point that he’ll be a stalwart supporter of Trump.
“Sleepin’ Joe has got a record, you know, that doesn’t line up with Hoosiers,” Braun said, using Trump’s nickname for Donnelly. “He calls himself the hired help. … He looks like the tired help. And with his performance, I think it ought to be the fired help.”
Donnelly has highlighted his work across the aisle with Trump, while hammering Braun over health care and his business record. His latest ad spotlights his vote to confirm Gorsuch, his support for Trump’s border wall, and Trump praising him for his work on a bipartisan “right to try” bill that allows terminally ill people to try experimental drug treatments.
There’s still plenty of time until the election for voters’ focus to shift. Less than a month ago, headlines were focused on Paul Manafort’s guilty plea.
“The Kavanaugh matter has energized people. I’ve certainly heard that. What I’ve said to several people is we’re still 24 days away,” Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN) told TPM at the Pence-Braun rally. “We still have light years to go in many ways before this election’s over.”
And Brooks conceded that Donnelly’s folksy appeal is giving him a shot.
“Everyone acknowledges that he is a nice man and he is an incredibly hard worker,” she said, after highlighting areas where she thought Donnelly was out of step with the state’s voters.
The one policy area where Donnelly has been aggressive is health care. He’s hammered Braun for having high health insurance premiums for his workers and for supporting a lawsuit that would end the ban on preexisting conditions. Donnelly routinely highlights his vote against repealing Obamacare.
“We were able to win [in 2012] because of your hard work, all of you. And because of that we were able to save health care by one vote,” he told volunteers at the Merrillville event.
Donnelly will need a strong showing both with the blue-collar, populist voters who fled his party last election and with GOP-leaning suburban women turned off by Trump.
“What Joe’s doing is painting himself as someone who’ll work with Trump when he can and be an independent voice from Trump when he thinks it’s necessary. Braun has done the exact opposite, he’s attached Trump to his hip and is trying to ride him across the finish line,” said former Rep. Baron Hill (D-IN). “And I think that’s a mistake here, people want an independent voice as opposed to a lapdog for Trump.”
When Obama pulled off an improbable victory in the state in 2008, he carried 15 of the state’s 92 counties. Donnelly won 26 when he upset Mourdock in 2012, posting huge margins in the counties near Chicago. He over-performed in the donut counties around Indianapolis, and carried chunks of suburban and exurban territory near Louisville, Cincinnati and Evansville. Clinton carried just four counties statewide last election.
Jerome Davidson, who works for the United Steelworkers, said the difference between Clinton’s approach and Donnelly’s was night and day.
“The reason why he won is what he’s doing right there,” he said, pointing to Donnelly as the senator greeted local supporters with hearty handshakes at one of his whistle-stop events in Northwest Indiana Saturday. “She didn’t come to the Rust Belt and do that, right there — talking to people and shaking hands. This is why he’ll win again.”
Even as the GOP base appears to be shaking awake, it’s clear that Democrats’ white-hot fury hasn’t dimmed. That includes in red states like Indiana that still have plenty of pockets of blue voters. And there are plenty of moderate Republicans and independents who remain open to backing someone who’s split with the president.
Bob Roach, an electrical engineer at a Northwest Indiana steel plant who attended the Donnelly-Biden rally, had been so turned off by both Trump and Hillary Clinton that he skipped the top of the ticket in 2016.
He said he’d “never, ever voted straight-party” in his life.
But Roach said this year was different — that voting down the line for Democrats will be “the easiest vote I ever made.” Backing Donnelly was a no-brainer for him.
It remains to be seen whether there are enough Bob Roaches out there to send Donnelly back to the Senate.
Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams argued last week that Kemp had to step down so that Georgians can “have confidence that their Secretary of State competently and impartially oversee this election.”
Abrams’ call was taken up by protesters and several state civil rights groups. The Georgia NAACP, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Groups, and other organizations filed a lawsuit against Kemp on Thursday, arguing that his office discriminated against minority residents.
Under the “exact match” policy, Georgia is allowed to delay or block voter registrations if information on the registration form does not align exactly with existing state records.
An Associated Press review of state records found that some 70 percent of the 53,000 people affected by the policy are black.
Kemp has insisted that affected voters can still cast ballots in person on Election Day, and attacked “outside agitators”—a term used by segregationists in the South—for stirring up controversy about his policy.
The Republican nominee is also trying to shift attention back across the aisle. On Friday, he claimed for the first time that the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor should withdraw from the race over allegations made in an April complaint against her family’s business.
Kemp said that the claims of racial discrimination at the Jack Cooper trucking firm are “unacceptable and disqualifying” for Sarah Riggs Amico, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
“It’s obvious the Georgia GOP wants to distract voters from this week’s national news headlines,” the Amico campaign said in a statement calling the lawsuit’s claims “completely without merit.”
Following intense scrutiny over his policy that blocked 53,000 Georgia residents from registering to vote, Georgia secretary of state and GOP candidate for governor Brian Kemp went after “outside agitators” in a Wednesday statement.
A number of states currently under full GOP control—including Wisconsin, South Dakota, Kansas, Michigan and Ohio—allow the governor veto power over district maps drawn by the state legislature. With less than four weeks to go before Election Day, Democrats are either in the lead or in close races to retake the governor’s mansion in those states.
Redistricting experts say that winning just this one office represents Democrats’ best opportunity to have a voice in the once-a-decade redistricting process that next rolls around in 2021—and block the GOP from locking in majorities for another 10 years.
“The Republican gerrymander at the state legislative level is even more solid than the gerrymander of the U.S. House,” David Daley of FairVote, an electoral reform group, told TPM. “So if Democrats want to have a seat at the table in 2020 redistricting, the best way in many otherwise competitive states that are friendly to Democrats requires winning the governor’s mansion.”
“Governors are key in this process, and can be a powerful check and balance on efforts to gerrymander,” the Brennan Center’s Michael Li concurred.
Good government and redistricting reform groups like former Attorney General Eric Holder’s outfit, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), are well aware of these stakes. In laying out their targets for 2018, the NDRC said its goal was to break trifecta control—GOP rule of both houses of state legislatures and the governorship—to make sure “Democrats have a seat at the table.”
“What we know about redistricting is that the most extreme maps always emerge when one party has total control of the process,” Daley said.
To illustrate just how important governors can be to these battles, Li brought up the examples of Wisconsin and Minnesota. The 2010 Republican wave election gave the GOP total control in the Badger State, while in Minnesota, Republicans won both houses of the legislature, losing the governorship, by a hair, to Democrat Mark Dayton. When the redistricting process came around in 2011, following the 2010 Census, the two states ended up with starkly different outcomes.
In Wisconsin, Li said, the GOP “went to town and drew one of the most aggressive gerrymanders that the country’s ever seen in the state assembly.” Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed off on the maps, which were subsequently challenged in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
In Minnesota, Dayton “was able to veto a very bad Republican gerrymander, which kicked the process to the courts. And the courts drew a map which has been much more responsive to electoral shifts.”
Control of Minnesota’s House has flipped from Democrats in 2012 to Republicans in 2014 and could flip back to Democrats in 2018.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, has been safely Republican for the past decade. In 2012, Democratic candidates for the state assembly earned over 174,000 more votes than their Republican counterparts, but Republicans took 60 of the 99 seats.
“2016 proved so uncompetitive that half—fully 49 percent of those seats—went uncontested by either major party,” Daley noted.
The Midwest has been an epicenter of Republican control post-2010, but Democrats are currently leading in the governor’s races in Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota, as Governing magazine recently reported. Walker is also in trouble in Wisconsin, while Democrats are making a strong showing in other states like Kansas, Iowa, Ohio, and South Dakota where the governor has either veto control over or a key role in the redistricting process.
The huge enthusiasm for that effort, which gained over 400,000 signatures, is a testament to how enduring the effects of Michigan’s 2010 gerrymander have been. Democrats won more total votes in state House races in 2012, 2014 and 2016, but failed to take back control.
As redistricting reform advocates are quick to point out, gerrymandering is not exclusively a Republican problem. In Maryland, where redistricting is actually run out of the governor’s office, then-Gov. Martin O’Malley worked with the Democratic legislature to secure a 7-1 Democratic congressional gerrymander in 2010.
At a Baltimore event in September, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous said he would push the balance to 8-0 if he’s elected.
Dan Vicuña, national redistricting director at Common Cause, said these sorts of winner-take-all-approaches represent a “very short-sighted” view of how the process should work. Where they have full control, Democrats and Republicans are prone to making the kind of power grab they couldn’t stomach if control changed hands.
“It’s in the best interest of both parties to really hedge their bets and come up with some sort of real reform effort,” Vicuña told TPM. “Be that independent commissions or something with a partisan balance that prevents one party from steamrolling the other.”
Assuming that those efforts don’t come to pass and the process remains fiercely political, a wave of Democratic governorships in red states could result in “deadlock” over maps, according to Vicuña. As in Minnesota, that could mean the process gets kicked to the courts, which Vicuña said have historically “hewed somewhat closely to the lines that the state legislatures have drawn.”
But after a decade of gerrymandering games and drawn-out legal battles, the courts have started turning to special masters who’ve ignored the legislatures’ suggestions entirely.
“I think the courts will be far less likely to be deferential to the districts that legislators are proposing and more likely to start from scratch,” Vicuña said.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum on Thursday demanded that Florida TV stations stop broadcasting a “maliciously false” attack ad put out by the state Republican Party, warning that further broadcast of the ad would be intentionally defamatory.
In a cease-and-desist letter, lawyers for the Gillum campaign claims the ad was approved by his GOP opponent Rep. Ron DeSantis and makes “demonstrably false” claims. The 30-second spot focuses on an ongoing FBI public corruption investigation into the city government in Tallahassee, where Gillum serves as mayor.
“Andrew Gillum is running for Governor and also from the FBI,” the ad, which is cut through with images of police tape, states. It ends with a line saying Gillum is “not just radical, but corrupt.”
Gillum’s attorney writes that the candidate is neither the subject of the probe nor received any anonymous payments from anyone, as suggested.
“The Advertisement constitutes libel and slander of the worst sort,” the letter reads. “This letter shall serve as notice that any further publication or rebroadcast of the Advertisement by you will be intentional and made with actual knowledge of the maliciously false and defamatory statements contained therein.”
The FBI probe focuses on whether developers were able to influence Tallahassee development projects. Investigators have requested information from Adam Corey, a lobbyist and Gillum friend, but Gillum has not been named in any subpoenas.
The Tallahassee mayor has posted related records online, and pledged to work with the FBI.
The probe has been a major talking point for Florida Republicans in the close gubernatorial race.
The chaotic Kansas gubernatorial primaries saw a GOP race that came down to just dozens of votes and a push to boot the independent nominee from the ballot. When the dust finally settled in late August, three major candidates had emerged for November’s five-person contest: Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly, and Independent Greg Orman.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s (R) office is blocking 53,000 people from registering to vote, according to records obtained by the Associated Press, a huge number that could sway his gubernatorial race against Democrat Stacey Abrams.
As TPM laid out this morning, Kemp has used a controversial “exact match” program to approve or block voter registrations that disproportionately impacts minority voters.
Now we know exactly how many people that might affect this election. According to the AP, fully 70 percent of the voter applications that are being held up by Kemp’s office are from black people.
It’s unclear how many of these voters will be able to get on the rolls by Election Day.
People whose registrations are still pending have 26 months to correct the problem, and get one notice by mail advising them of the issue. They can still vote in-person provided they present a driver’s license or other form of photo ID, something that minorities are less likely to have, or cast a provisional vote and return within three days with valid proof of identification.
The secretary of state has waged a years-long battle against voting rights groups in the state, regularly going after minority voter registration efforts, while purging voting rolls and making it harder for many people to vote.
This figure shows how much impact that could have. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s (R) 8-point reelection margin in 2014 was just 200,000 votes total. Abrams and Kemp have been statistically tied in most public and private polls. Whether or not these voters get on the rolls could determine who wins the election.
This story was updated at 9:20 p.m. to more fully explain the state’s exact match law.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed North Dakota to enforce for the midterm elections its full voter ID law, which a federal judge had previously sought to relax in a lawsuit brought by Native Americans in the state.