Analyst: Donnelly's Position On Tax Reform Could Be Key In 2018

Sep 28, 2017

Photo: Steve Burns (WFIU/WTIU News)

Donnelly is one of three vulnerable Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2018 who represent states Trump won.

A political analyst says Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly’s position on the GOP effort to overhaul federal tax policy could be a key issue in his re-election bid next year.

Donnelly is facing significant pressure from President Donald Trump and other Republicans to support the tax measure.

The Democrat traveled with Trump from D.C. to Indianapolis Wednesday and was present when Trump unveiled the tax plan.

Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics Director Andrew Downs says Donnelly is a target because, as a moderate Democrat in a Republican state, he’s more likely than most Senators to join Republicans in support.

“In Indiana we saw the acceleration of the elimination of an estate tax, so the idea that a lot of folks who maybe own very valuable land, farming land, would be in a better position is something that Donnelly will have to be thinking about,” Downs says.

Photo: Steve Burns

President Trump targeted Donnelly by name in his speech, pressuring the Democratic Senator to support the GOP tax overhaul plan.

Donnelly is one of three vulnerable Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2018 who represent states Trump won. Last week, he joined Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia for a working dinner with Trump at the White House focused on the GOP tax overhaul.

Manchin, Heitkamp and Donnelly are the only Democratic senators who did not sign a letter addressed to Republican leaders and Trump that said the Democratic caucus would not support a tax overhaul that cuts taxes for the “top 1 percent” or adds to the government’s $20 trillion debt.

Downs says tax reform could be a key issue for Hoosier voters in 2018.

“If it disappears quickly as an issue, in other words if it’s killed off for one reason or another, if it’s watered down significantly, and the role Donnelly plays in it is minor, then it will be less of an issues,” Downs says. “But given the scope of it, given the size of it, given the importance that the administration has placed on it, I think it’s safe to say this will continue to be an issue in 2018 in the campaigns.”

Trump targeted Donnelly by name in Wednesday’s speech, saying if the Democratic Senator doesn’t support the proposal, Trump will campaign against him “like you wouldn’t believe.”

But Downs says Trump is likely to campaign against Donnelly regardless of his stance on tax reform.

“It’s in some respects an empty threat, or would have been more accurate to say ‘I won’t’ campaign as much against you,’” Downs says.

Downs says although incumbents are re-elected at a very high rate, it is a competitive race and national Republicans will be pouring millions of dollars into Indiana in an effort to unseat Donnelly.

Q&A: Downs On the 2018 Senate Race

Several candidates have joined the GOP primary race, vying for the chance to run against Donnelly in 2018. The two front-runners are Rep. Todd Rokita and Rep. Luke Messer, who are already involved in a heated campaign.

Downs gives us a detailed look at the Senate race so far.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Q: Is there any indication that Trump has a favored candidate in the GOP primary race for Donnelly’s seat?

If you look at the voting records of Todd Rokita and Luke Messer they’re awfully similar, what they say is awfully similar, and we really shouldn’t rule out several other people who are running for that office. We have six people running for it right now, that may be the final number, we won’t know for a while. But when you have that many people running, suddenly if you’re able to pull together 30 percent of the vote in some way, shape or form you might be the person who manages to win. And when you’re talking about former members of the state legislature and people who for regional reasons might be able to pull together a block of voters.

Although Rokita and Messer are the front runners, I don’t think that we can automatically say that the race is over and only between them. So there are other opportunities for Trump. It will be interesting to see if he decides to wade into the primary. In some respects he has no reason to, because most of the people who are running are reasonably well aligned with what he would like to do, so he wouldn’t have to waste capital so to speak.

Q: Rokita recently released an ad calling out Messer for not supporting Trump enough. Is this strategy likely to help him with voters in Indiana?

I think the race in Alabama is kind of interesting at this point, because we saw Trump down there clearly backing a candidate and we saw allies of his backing the other candidate. In fact we heard folks like Steve Bannon suggesting that Moore was the Trump-like candidate even though that’s not who Trump was backing.

I don’t think we’ve figured it out yet. I think there is still a block of voters who are looking for that outsider perspective, who are looking for someone who will help to shake things up or drain the swamp as a lot of people like to say. And there’s also a block of voters who would like to see certain things getting accomplished. And there’s a difference there in what will appear to voters.

So it’s kind of hard to say at this point, I think.

Q: How much will national voices play a part in this race?

I think it’s safe to say that the Democrats understand this is a state some would say were lucky to win five years ago and it’s one that they would desperately like to hold onto.

This is a state that will see maybe over $100 million spent on advertising. So it’s safe to say we’ll see all of the major players putting money into this state.

If you look from the 2012 race to the 2016 race, there was an increase, depending on what you want to count in spending, there was already an increase of $10+ million, and it may have been as much as $20 million. And organizations are starting to figure out how to advertise and how to spend their money. That’s something that they were a little unfamiliar with in 2012, because we weren’t used to having super PACS. Now everyone’s figuring out how to spend the money.

The money raised and spent by the actual campaigns didn’t change a whole lot from 2012 to 2016. It will probably go up a little bit again in 2018. It’s the outside money that’s going up at that really high rate.

Q: What are Donnelly’s chances of holding onto the seat?

Given how much we re-elect incumbents, I think he has a chance. I think there are a couple other factors to think about. Number one, he has been very conscious about coming back to the state, visiting the state, driving around the state and talking with voters. He hasn’t really shied away from discussion, so he’s been willing ot have difficult discussions with voters. And people respect that, they respect it when you show up and actually have a conversation with them.

Beyond that, issues he has pushed, especially things like veteran’s affairs, in many ways appeal to Hoosier voters.

So I know that some of the national folks are considering it to be a toss-up. That’s in part because it’s a Republican state and so the Republicans have to be given a lot of maybe not deference but you have to recognize the possibility for Republicans to win here.

But it’s also a sign that Donnelly is no slouch as a Senator. He’s doing the things that people expect senators to do. Will he be able to hold on and pull it out? Well that’s obviously what we’ll find out in 2018, but I think it is a competitive race and should be considered that at least for the near term and we can re-evaluate as we move along.