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National Democratic momentum stalls in Indiana Senate race

Darron Cummings
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — On a night Democrats nationwide rode a blue wave of opposition to President Donald Trump to pick up governorships and take control of the House, their momentum stalled in the red state of Indiana.

Instead, Republican Mike Braun's victory over the lone remaining Democrat elected statewide helped turn Indiana an even darker shade of crimson.

The multimillionaire auto parts magnate ousted Sen. Joe Donnelly, offering a strong indicator of where the state and its middle-of-the-road reputation could be headed politically.

But it wasn't just Donnelly's defeat. Democrats also got trounced in two congressional races — one in northern Indiana, the other in the southern part of the state — where they held out hope for longshot wins.

Braun told supporters during a victory speech that his election shows voters are sick of career politicians in both parties.

"The theme of my campaign is that we need to take to Washington what works in the real world," he said.

The outcome is perhaps little surprise in an era where party affiliation is increasingly determined by factors like race, ethnicity, age and an urban vs. rural divide.

Indiana is an agrarian and conservative state. But it wasn't long ago that voters here regularly elected conservative Democrats to the governor's office and Congress in significant numbers.

Just look at Braun's own political history.

Although he insists that he's a lifelong Republican, Braun long voted in Democratic primaries before switching over to the GOP several years ago before he was elected to his first of two legislative terms in the Indiana House.

For years, Donnelly has tried to walk a delicate line. After Trump won the state by 19 points, Donnelly spoke kindly of him, celebrated areas where they agreed but promised that he wouldn't be a rubber stamp. Rarely did he mention that he's a Democrat.

"If you want someone to be with a political party 100 percent of the time, I'm not that guy," Donnelly said in his final ad of the campaign. "I'm not about party."

But he's also had a target on his back ever since he unexpectedly won in 2012 after his opponent Richard Mourdock made incendiary comments about abortion and rape.

And as the race tightened, Donnelly adopted some of Trump's rhetoric, angering members of his own party by attacking socialists and the "radical left," while calling for a border wall with Mexico.

That appears to have hurt him in Democratic strongholds such as Marion County, where an "unmotivated" electorate did not turn out at levels he needed, said Andy Downs, a political science professor at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

"A lot of Democratic voters in Indiana understand moderates, understand governing from the middle," Downs said. "But when you pretty much hug Trump, you've probably gone a little too far."

Republicans say the first-term senator talked a good game with his pro-Trump message. But they argued he was against the president when it counted, noting he opposed the GOP-led tax cut, legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

In a midterm election cycle that largely turned on whether candidates were for or against Trump, Donnelly's balancing act just didn't work.

Mark Allan, 50, is a truck driver from Indianapolis who voted for Braun. He likes the way Trump is leading the country, particularly when it comes to immigration and foreign policy, and wanted to cast a ballot for someone who will vote for the president's priorities.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with Donnelly, but he's been on both sides of the fence," Allan said. "We need to keep the Senate Republican to support the agenda of Donald Trump."

Trump, too, was heavily invested in the race in Vice President Mike Pence's home state. He campaigned aggressively against Donnelly, who he called "Sleepin' Joe."

In his concession statement, Donnelly said he was honored to serve the state.

"It has been one of the greatest honors of my life to represent Indiana in the Senate," Donnelly said. "I wish Mike the best, and I hope he makes every single Hoosier proud as our senator."

Braun's victory is one few would have predicted last year when the two-term state lawmaker announced he would run in the GOP primary against two congressmen.

By leveraging his own fortune and loaning his campaign more than $10 million, he was able to deluge his Republican rivals under a wave of TV advertisements.

Braun, who is worth somewhere between $37 million and $95 million, says Trump's success inspired him to run. On Tuesday he won after adopting a similar outsider businessman template.

"He didn't need this. I didn't need it either, by the way," Trump said at a rally for Braun near Indianapolis last week. "But we're having fun. You know why? We're winning."