Donnelly’s Dilemma

Posted on: July 24, 2018, by :

By Jeff Turner

On July 9th, Donald Trump announced his nominee to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, fifty-three year old Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh currently serves as a Circuit Court Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Though the retiring Kennedy was often seen as the court’s “swing vote” on certain cases, Kavanaugh’s appointment would undoubtedly tilt the court to the right for decades to come.
CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin made the alarming statement that he believed abortion would be illegal in twenty states in the next eighteen months as a result of Kennedy’s retirement. Thus a great many are gravely concerned. Kavanaugh’s nomination sets up what will most likely be one of the most contentious Supreme Court confirmations in recent memory, made more so by the highly-polarized nature of not just Congress, but the electorate also. The nomination comes during an election year in which a “blue wave” was predicted that would allow Democrats to regain the House and quite possibly the Senate.

The timing of Kennedy’s retirement, and the signs that the Trump administration played a role in convincing him to step down, make it seem like this is a calculated political move on the part of Republicans to offset any possible Senate losses in November by putting pressure on red state Democrats, including Indiana’s Joe Donnelly. The only poll out, from Axios/Survey Monkey, has Donnelly trailing GOP challenger Mike Braun 49%-47%, well within the poll’s five-point margin of error. But now Donnelly faces a political dilemma, whether to vote to confirm Kavanaugh at the risk of alienating and infuriating his already jaded Democratic base, or to vote against him and risk losing the support of certain Republican swing voters, and center-right leaning independents.

In the highly polarized, hyper-partisan age of Trump, most people tend to vote a straight ticket, especially here in Indiana. But the more daunting challenge for Donnelly is appealing to a Democratic base of which many aren’t particularly enthusiastic to cast a vote for him.

On Friday July 13th, more than forty activists went to Donnelly’s downtown Indianapolis office, an event organized by Indivisible Indianapolis in order to convey to Donnelly that they do not want him to vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh.

“I did not vote for him (Donnelly) in the primary to send a message,” said Kelly Macy, one of the attendees, who added that she didn’t know whether she would vote for Donnelly should he vote to confirm Kavanaugh. A “no” vote on Kavanaugh, even were it to doom his reelection chances to her “would show his true commitment to the people, to us…that he is a true Democrat instead of a moderate Republican.”

This is quite possibly the biggest hurdle Donnelly faces in his efforts for reelection, that his Democratic base is not enthusiastic about coming out to vote for him in November.

“If he has any principles, he will come down and vote against this nominee,” said Peter Dorfman of Indivisible Bloomington. “If he’s banking on making the wrong choice on this, if he’s counting on diehard progressives to get his back, it won’t happen.”

According to the Congressional Quarterly, Donnelly voted with Trump 62% of the time during 2017, the second most of any Senate Democrat (West Virginia’s Joe Manchin was number one with 71%), a figure that riles many progressives and liberal Democrats. However, he did vote with his party 74% of the time in 2017, though this fact is often overshadowed by his votes on other issues. He was one of three Democrats who broke with the party and voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch last year, and has voted to confirm most of Trump’s cabinet picks.

Voter enthusiasm is key to any election victory, and Senator Donnelly needs to do something to galvanize his Democratic base. And in this instance what he needs to do to make that happen is to vote “no” on Kavanaugh’s nomination. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer provided every single Democrat, including red state ones like Donnelly, the perfect reason to vote no on Kavanaugh. This is an election year, to use Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s argument for blocking former President Obama’s Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland. The Senate’s job is to “advise and consent” on the President’s Supreme Court nominees. The hypocrisy of the GOP in this instance is beyond jarring. But it also gives the perfect rationale for a “no” vote on Kavanaugh.

And that is the solution to Donnelly’s dilemma: vote “no” on Kavanaugh. The partisan nature of this state, and this country, make it unlikely that many Republicans will split their ticket and vote for Donnelly. The key to his re-election is getting out the vote, energizing his base, and focusing on the issues. Yes, the Koch brothers and other groups will be pouring exorbitant amounts of money into his opponent’s campaign, and airing attack ads against him (which they will do regardless, and have already done). But his Democratic base, the people who helped him get elected the first time around, want to see him show that he is invested in their interests. And a great many of them want to see Trump’s Supreme Court pick blocked.

A “yes” vote on Kavanaugh may seem like the politically smart move but that may well backfire in this instance. Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 primarily because of a lack of enthusiasm among Democratic voters. Being the lesser of two evils isn’t necessarily enough to guarantee winning an election. In order to energize his base and generate voter enthusiasm, Donnelly needs to show that he’s a true friend of Hoosier Democrats. Vote “no” on Kavanaugh.

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