The Indiana GOP is a historic juggernaut

EVANSVILLE — Nearly 1,500 Republican delegates gathered here last weekend. Their Democratic brothers and sister convene in Indianapolis Friday and Saturday. So what is the status of Indiana’s dominant, super majority Grand Old Party?

For Democrats, the blunt force reality is that their hold on the only office voted on by all Hoosiers, the U.S. Senate seat, is now a “tossup” race. The Morning Consult “2018 Midterm Wave Watcher” supplies some statistical grist: Donnelly’s approve/disapprove stood at 41/34 percent, down from 43/30 percent in January. But the real heartburn for Democrats is that 44 percent said it’s “time for a new person” while 31 percent said Donnelly “deserves reelection.”

The Donnelly campaign’s fundraising appeals are also fraught with angst. “We know our emails have been a little panicky lately, but we’re not exaggerating when we say that Joe’s chances of winning in November are no better than a coin flip,” read one Team Donnelly fundraising appeal last week. Another notes: “Here’s the deal … The pollsters are calling this race a toss-up, and that means we’ve got an equally good chance of losing as we do of winning. I’ve heard that before, though. After all, no one thought we’d win in 2012.”

The “blue wave” that had been a double-digit advantage for Democrats until May has turned into, as Republican National Chairman Ronna McDaniel put it, a “blue ripple.” On Wednesday, Rasmussen Reports put the congressional generic at 44-40 percent favoring Democrats, Economist/YouGov had it 43/37 percent and PPP put it at 46/40 percent. Interestingly, Fox News had the widest margin at 48/39 percent last Friday. I don’t take these generics very seriously until late summer, and most polls still show voter intensity favoring Democrats by a significant margin.

There’s the emergence of Mike Braun as the GOP nominee. I always believed he was the GOP’s best-case scenario given the low congressional job approval that would have hounded his vanquished primary opponents, Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer, who, by the way, passed on a show of unity at the convention. On Wednesday, PPP had it at 6 percent approval while Rasmussen had it at 13 percent. Braun is not only unhampered by the abysmal congressional approval, he will turn the tables, using it against Donnelly.

Part of my rationale for keeping the Senate race in a “Leans Donnelly” assessment up until this week is I wanted to watch Braun’s first month as a nominee. He has avoided the blunders that Richard Mourdock committed in 2012 when he alienated the Lugar wing of the party, as well as the incendiary rhetoric that prompted the National Republican Senatorial Committee to assign handlers and keep him out of joint appearances. Braun has financial resources and he has been hitting the D.C. funding circuit hard. He’s already running his first statewide TV ad for the general election featuring his business and employees as an inoculation against Democratic attacks that have already been unleashed.

The Mike Braun we saw in Evansville was on message. While he did embrace the 2014/2016 platform language on marriage, and Donnelly will likely attempt to use that against him, it will not be a determinate factor next fall. This election will be a referendum on President Trump, the economy, and how both the North Korean talks and Trump tariffs fare.

Hoosier Republicans opted to keep the 2014 and 2016 platform plank language on same-sex marriage, endorsing the traditional man/woman vows even though a gay couple can go to any Indiana courthouse and get a marriage license. Gov. Eric Holcomb and Indiana GOP Chairman Kyle Hupfer sought the more inclusive language that recognizes single parents, grandparents and gays raising kids, but a voice vote on the floor wasn’t even close.

There was speculation that Holcomb sought the nuanced change while Indianapolis is in the running for the Amazon HQ2. So, the impact could be negligible and confined to several news cycles, or it could be profound if Amazon opts for a more liberal-to-moderate region and the story line emerges that the plank damaged the bid.

This was Holcomb’s first convention as governor, having been lieutenant governor, state party chair, Gov. Mitch Daniels’ campaign manager, and a congressional aide at others. Beyond the marriage plank, the Hoosier GOP appeared united. If they engineer an upset of Sen. Donnelly, Indiana becomes, for all intents and purposes, pretty much a one-party state beyond the mayoral level. They control 111 of the 150 General Assembly seats, all the statewide constitutional offices, nine of 12 congressional seats and — this is an estimate — upwards of 70 percent of county offices.

With Vice President Mike Pence, there’s been a steady stream of Hoosiers — Surgeon General Jerome Adams, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, Medicaid/Medicare Director Seema Verma, Health & Human Services Sec. Alex Azar and Agriculture Under Sec. Ted McKinney — along with about 30 others in various Trump administration posts and political positions. That is a lot of talent that has left the state, but other Republicans have stepped up.

We are witnessing, perhaps, the most impressive political juggernaut by one party in our two centuries as a state.