The Man in the Middle: Joe Donnelly
Outside of his home district in Northern Indiana, congressman Joseph S. Donnelly Sr. was a relative unknown—until an upset election victory over Richard Mourdock thrust him into a Senate seat and the national spotlight.
With the first year of his freshman term behind him, Donnelly is now positioning himself as the nation’s most moderate legislator. No, it’s not sexy. But he’s pretty sure it’s what you want.
By now, the storyline of Richard Mourdock’s fall-from-ahead loss to Joe Donnelly is well established. And partly wrong.
In May 2012, Mourdock, the state treasurer and Tea Party darling, seized the Senate nomination from the venerable Richard Lugar, whose reelection was once as regular as spring corn-planting, in a Republican primary that seemed to signal a hard-right turn in Indiana politics. Donnelly, a centrist three-term congressman, ran unopposed in the Democratic primary.
Mourdock, by dint of holding statewide office and unseating the popular Lugar, had name recognition. Donnelly, a Granger guy representing Indiana’s 2nd district, was a relative stranger south of Kokomo and from a party that, at the time, couldn’t claim a single statewide officeholder. As the race entered the home stretch, Mourdock enjoyed a comfortable lead in at least one poll. It was a contest the Republican was supposed to win.
You know what happened next. On October 23, at a debate in New Albany, Mourdock explained his opposition to abortion even in cases of sexual assault, describing rape as “something that God intended to happen.” A national firestorm ensued. By the end of the month, just days before the election, a Howey/DePauw poll showed Donnelly with a commanding 11-point lead. On November 6, he was Indiana’s unlikely senator-elect.
So Mourdock tanked, right? Well, yes, but … An election-night headline from The Daily Beast, typical of many news outlets reporting the outcome around the country, announced, “Mourdock Loses Indiana Senate.” Something important got buried in this and many other recaps, though: Prior to Mourdock’s controversial comment, the Donnelly campaign, which started from way behind, had already made the race a dead heat. He had doggedly traveled the state on a platform of reduced government spending; strong national defense; gun rights; and, in fact, opposition to abortion, if a more nuanced version than his rival’s. Donnelly’s message to voters was, in effect, “Hey, I’m a Democrat, but I’m also conservative—just not as conservative as that other fellow.” The firebrand Mourdock had pledged not to compromise if elected to the Senate, claiming, “We need some zealots in the Republican Party.” By comparison, the square-jawed Donnelly was mild-mannered, affable, and inoffensive—a friendly uncle to Mourdock’s stern-father act. The Democrat was well-positioned to benefit from the gift of Mourdock’s gaffe, especially when tens of millions of dollars in last-ditch spending flooded the race as conservative groups sought to stem Mourdock’s slide, and their progressive counterparts seized on the chance to score an unexpected seat for the Dems.
That Daily Beast headline, and the many others like it, might have read instead, “Donnelly Wins Indiana Senate.” And with the victory, Donnelly revived a once-proud political animal that had recently been left for dead: the Hoosier Moderate. In the not-so-distant past, Indiana voters picked Democratic governors in four consecutive elections, and one of them, Evan Bayh—a friend of Donnelly’s—later organized a caucus of centrist Blue Dog Democrats in his second Senate term. His recently elected successor, Republican Dan Coats, is rated the nation’s 23rd-most conservative senator (out of 100) by the National Journal. In 2011, Governor Mitch Daniels became the national sweetheart of center-leaning Republicans before formally ending speculation that he might run for president. The New York Times rated his replacement, Mike Pence, as the second-most conservative Republican governor in the United States. It looked as though the ouster of Lugar—the very symbol of centrism—was the final nail in the Hoosier Moderate’s coffin.
That is, until Donnelly showed that Indiana voters may still have a soft spot for middle-of-the-road candidates. And in practice, Donnelly the senator has not disappointed. He promised to lay aside party politics, and at key moments he has done just that, most notably during last year’s federal-shutdown crisis, when he joined a bipartisan “Gang of 14” senators to hammer out a debt-ceiling compromise. In the National Journal’s ratings, Donnelly had a liberal composite score of 47.8 for 2013, which made him the chamber’s 48th-most conservative member. “I tend to let freshmen get their bearings for a couple of years—unless, of course, they do something nutty,” says Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst with The Cook Political Report. “Donnelly hasn’t done anything nutty, and his 2013 vote ratings certainly suggest that he is being the moderate senator he said he would.” Not exactly an exciting assessment, but not bad, either.
In a chamber where one party enjoys a thin majority, the junior senator from Indiana has garnered disproportionate influence as one of a handful of Democratic legislators from red and purple states who hold swing votes; colleagues on both sides of the aisle must seek his approval to get things passed.
But riding the center line can be risky. The stance looks like independent-minded conviction on some issues and bald political calculation on others, depending on who’s watching. In March, Donnelly angered progressives—indeed, the majority of his own party—as one of seven Senate Democrats who helped vote down President Barack Obama’s nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. A few years ago, Adegbile worked on an appeal for convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, prompting police groups to raise a stink over his appointment. Donnelly sided with the Law and Order lobby, a position that will probably play well here at home but could make for uncomfortable conversations at caucus cocktail parties.
Donnelly’s first piece of legislation, the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act—a plan that seeks to standardize mental-health evaluations in the armed services—is in some ways a case study of the senator’s politics. At press time, he was planning to reintroduce the measure, first proposed in April 2013, for possible inclusion in the National Defense Authorization Act. It is narrow in scope and would ultimately affect only a sliver of the U.S. population. But it addresses a real problem—the military suicide rate has nearly doubled over the past decade—for which few red-blooded Americans, conservative or liberal, would object to seeking a remedy. And it will let Donnelly, a member of the Armed Services Committee, say he cares about our troops when he faces what is sure to be a tough Republican challenge for his seat in 2018.
In the meantime, after one roller-coaster election and not quite two years in office, we’re still getting to know our newest senator. Indiana, meet Joe.
A lot of people outside of Northern Indiana still know you as “that Democrat Richard Mourdock lost to.” What would you like to say to the rest of the state about yourself?
I’m just Joe. I’m the hired help. I work for everybody in Indiana, and my job is to try to make sure I am focused on the concerns of everybody here. For instance, I serve on the Agriculture Committee, and we were just able to finish up a farm bill for the next five years, and my ideas for the farm bill were the ideas of Indiana’s farmers. I traveled around the state meeting with them and said, “Look, you tell me what you want in this farm bill. You tell me how to make this work, and I’ll be your voice.”
Everybody back home knows I used to coach Little League, was on the school board, am out mowing my lawn every weekend.
You still mow your own lawn?
Absolutely. I’m not as fast at it as I used to be, but it’s a great chance to get out in the yard.
At least you’re home often enough to keep it from getting too high.
The way I have tried to work, not only as a senator but as a congressman, is to come home almost every single weekend. I was fortunate last year: Between time in Washington and other commitments, I was able to get home to Indiana for 162 days. I think it’s critical in order to be the best senator possible. My wisdom comes from the people of Indiana.
I basically have to pinch myself as I walk into the Capitol, and it’s as special walking in there every day as it was on the first day. The office I’m in is not my office. That’s Indiana’s office. If you’re out there [in Washington], come by. We have coffee. We have soda.
You grew up in New York.
I did. You can pick where you want to live, but you can’t pick where you’re born.
I wasn’t accusing you. I’m sure there are many fine people from New York.
I loved growing up there. It was a wonderful place. I grew up out on Long Island. I applied to Notre Dame to go to college, the dream of basically every young Irish Catholic kid—I think you’re born, and then when you’re baptized, they give you a baptismal certificate and an application for Notre Dame. I was fortunate enough to get accepted.
Why did you stay in Indiana after graduation?
I met my wife, who was a Notre Dame student as well, and she was from South Bend. We didn’t get married right after college, but I thought, this is a great place to live.
You must have been one of the lucky ones to meet your future wife at Notre Dame. During the Manti Te’o “catfishing” scandal, you quipped that his plight was common while you were a student.
Yeah, I got in big trouble with that one. When I went to Notre Dame, it was just when they had first accepted women into the college. So there were like 10 guys for every woman at the school. And when someone asked me, “How did you feel about Manti Te’o having an imaginary girlfriend?” I said, “Well, back when I was there, we all had imaginary girlfriends, because we didn’t have real girlfriends.”
Tough Act to Follow
Your predecessor, Richard Lugar, was an accomplished statesman. Do you feel you have a duty to carry his torch?
Well, sure. I follow a legend. I had a funny experience: I was with a group of young people, and I said, “Following Richard Lugar is like following Mickey Mantle.” They all had glazed-over eyes, because nobody knew who Mickey Mantle was. That’s when I knew I was getting older. So I said, “It’s like following Peyton Manning,” and they all understood that.
Richard Lugar set the standard for how to conduct yourself as a United States senator. Every decision he made was based on, Does this make our nation stronger? Does this make Indiana stronger?
He was also a leader on agriculture, one of your committee assignments. Along with being on the Armed Services Committee, you seem to have an opportunity to carry on some of the work he did.
And he was kind enough—it’s exactly what you would expect of Senator Lugar—to reach out to me and say, “Hey, Joe, any time you need to call me, you call me. Any way I can be of help, I’ll be of help.” He said, “We’re a team here. We’re on Team America. Team Indiana. If you need me, let me know.” It’s extraordinary. It’s like having the voice of God just on the other end of the phone.
When you say “Team America,” I see the two of you wearing T-shirts with American flags on them. Or maybe jerseys.
No, you don’t want to see that. Let me go to the gym first. I have a little work to do.
Whom else do you point to as political role models?
People like Birch Bayh [the three-term senator from Indiana who introduced the Equal Rights Amendment and won passage of Title IX], who did so much for our state and has always conducted himself with great dignity. His son, Evan, who is a great friend of mine. I’m from the area where Governor [Otis] Bowen was from, who served his state, served his nation, and went back home and practiced medicine again, in Bremen. And from my own hometown, Governor [Joe] Kernan, who was in a North Vietnamese prison and every single day said a prayer to the good Lord, thanking him for letting him be an American citizen.
Outside of that, my own personal heroes are my mom and dad. Neither had a college education. They worked very, very hard and set a pretty good example.
On the Fence
You campaigned on a promise to bring “Hoosier common sense” to the U.S. Senate. What does that mean?
Hoosier common sense is when you look at issues, and there’s people over on the left who are advocating one side, there’s people over on the right pushing real hard as well, and usually Hoosier common sense finds you in the middle, looking at things and going, How can we make it better for our families? How can we create more jobs? How can we create more opportunity? How can we focus on Indiana and our country rather than worrying about the politics?
The middle is a lonelier place than it used to be. What keeps you hanging around there?
Well, you keep your place in the middle just by being yourself. I’m the fifth of five kids, so you had to learn real quick how to get along with others, how to be part of a team. We’re very lucky in the U.S. Senate right now in that there almost seems to be a resurgence of folks who are working from the middle, and that’s on both sides of the aisle. The legislation you see coming through the Senate is pretty much right down the middle. And I think that’s a good thing for the country.
If growing up with siblings taught you how to get along with others, what’s the deal with these other guys and gals in Congress? Are they only-children?
I was the fifth of five kids and we had two dogs, so I was the seventh in line.
So you didn’t get to eat until after the dogs?
Sometimes they beat me to the chow.
We saw some of that aisle-crossing you mentioned in the resolution to last year’s federal shutdown.
I was part of a group of 14 that sat down and worked for a few weeks to find common ground—seven Republicans, six Democrats, and one independent—and say, What can we do to end this nonsense? Over pizza and soda, over X-number of days, we were able to put a package together that enabled us to open our government back up, to focus on growing our economy and creating jobs, and getting our vital services back up and running. And you know, I received a crystal-clear message during my election to the United States Senate: Hoosiers wanted me to go there and not worry about politics, but just do what’s right.
Working with the other party can also anger folks in your own.
Yeah. But that’s okay. My job isn’t to worry about who’s getting angry about something, whether they’re on the left or the right. My job is to make sure that—for the single mom with two kids, who’s wondering how they’re going to make it through to the end of the month—that we try to figure out a way to provide them with hope. That for the dad who is wondering about whether or not he’s going to have the opportunity to stay in that line of work for another year or two—the economy stays strong.
Name some of the positions on which you disagree with most Democrats.
Oh, I can get you the list. One of these Washington magazines just put out its rankings of where senators stand on the ideological spectrum, and I was right in the middle. And I had a laugh because when I was in the House of Representatives, another one of those groups did a list of the 10 House members right in the middle, and I was there. I think it’s a reflection of who we are as a state, that we don’t look for the flashiest stuff. We don’t look for the most extreme stuff. We don’t look to be the loudest. We just look to be the most solid and try to make the most sense.
You and the president, in particular, have had disagreements.
I don’t work for the president. I work for the people of the state of Indiana. And so when he’s right, I’ll be with him. And when I think he’s not right, I’ll let him know. We had to work together to try to bring home our young men and women from Afghanistan. We met to try to save Chrysler, save the American auto industry, and do it in a way that not only created more jobs, but in a way that there was no debt left over.
We have had disagreements as well. We were in different places on issues like cap and trade [an element of Obama’s climate-change initiative that Donnelly opposes]. They know that when they pick up the phone to call Joe, Joe’s first and foremost critical obligation is to do what’s right for Indiana. If what they want to talk about makes sense for Indiana, I’m willing to talk. If it doesn’t, I’ll pass.
You also want to tweak some provisions of Obamacare.
If you look at the Affordable Care Act, you have people with diabetes, or arthritis, or leukemia, and many other preexisting conditions, who today are getting healthcare for the first time in their lives, and before were one sickness away from financial ruin, from losing everything. You have seniors who are getting prescriptions at a much-discounted rate. So there are good things in the healthcare act.
At the same time, there’s a lot of things that need to be fixed. It’s inherent and understood, not only in Indiana but throughout our country, that 40 hours a week is full-time [as opposed to 30 hours, the current threshold at which employers are required to provide health insurance]. It would make it easier for our small businesses, our cities, our school systems, to have the law reflect that. My co-sponsor on that bill is Susan Collins, a Republican. We don’t worry about Republican/Democrat, because they’re facing the same challenges in Maine that we’re facing in Indiana.
I’ve also supported the repeal of the medical-device tax, because I think it’s important to our economy and will actually create more jobs at the end of the day.
But we want to make sure that Mom, who has diabetes, and is taking care of the family, and has health insurance for the first time, that she doesn’t lose that health insurance. I’ll lie down on the tracks to make sure that doesn’t happen. At the same time, we have people on the left who say everything is perfect in the healthcare act. Well, that’s not correct. People on the right who say repeal the whole thing—well, that’s wrong, too. We want to have the best possible care, delivered in the simplest way possible, that also puts our country on a long-term path of stability.
Bread and Butter
In the campaign and now as a senator, your focus has mainly been on dinnertable economic matters rather than social issues. Why are those a priority for you?
Because if Mom or Dad doesn’t have a job, everything else becomes an extraordinary struggle. I was very privileged to represent north-central Indiana in Congress for some years. And during that time we went through arguably the toughest economic conditions since the Depression. In the district I represented, my northernmost county had unemployment over 20 percent, and my southernmost county also had unemployment over 20 percent. I met with families in those areas, and there was not just anger—there was fear. There was fear about losing homes. There was fear about, How can I ever get my life back on track?
So my focus has always been, How do we square up the basics first, and once we do, then can we continue to grow from there? Look, you can’t pay for an army if nobody’s working. And you can’t pay for a navy if nobody’s working.
In regard to the social issues and such, my obligation is to help Mom or Dad have a job, and to respect their opinions on those things. It’s not up to me to tell everybody else how to live their lives.
Until April 2013, you were one of only seven Democrats in the Senate who hadn’t followed the president’s lead in expressing support for same-sex marriage. Please explain why you changed your mind.
Sure. I think we have evolved as a country, and also as a state. We had companies like Cummins and Eli Lilly that said, “Look, we want people to feel welcome here. And we want everyone to feel a part of this incredible place we call Indiana.” It made sense to me that no matter what you believe on that issue, that you ought to be able to call Indiana home, that you ought to be able to feel welcome. That when you graduate from Purdue or Rose-Hulman or Notre Dame, or Evansville, or Ball State, or any of our colleges—we want you to stay here.
The good Lord blessed us with family members, with friends, and to have the chance to be with them. They shouldn’t have to say, “I have to move to Illinois to be with some other person,” or “I have to move to New York or California.” I would rather they stay. Because there’s so much talent, so much goodwill, so much love and affection here in Indiana, and I want everyone to think of us as the welcoming state that we are.
You’ve taken leadership on addressing military suicides. Why is that an important issue for you?
Because I’m a dad. My wife and I raised our kids, and everybody knows your whole life’s hopes and dreams are wrapped up in your children. I never see my wife smiling so much as when she sees our kids. It’s the same for every family. And every one of those soldiers is somebody’s son, or daughter, or brother, or sister, or husband, or wife. We have asked them to go to some of the most difficult, dangerous places in the world, with extraordinarily dangerous responsibilities, put incredible burdens on their shoulders. We have an obligation to make sure they can come home safe, and that they can come home with peace of mind.
What are some ways you’ve identified in which the federal government can get involved?
I’m the sponsor of legislation right now that will help provide a mental-health screen at the same time that we do the yearly physical for the soldier.
They don’t already do that?
They do not. What we’re trying to do is have a chance to learn a little bit more. In addition to that, we want the commander who is closest to them, the officer who has direct responsibility for each soldier, or each service person, to be able to give us a report back, to say, “Hey, Jessie is doing well, is squared up,” or “Jim is struggling right now,” or “Catherine is facing some challenges.” That gives us a heads-up. Nobody knows better than the person closest to you whether or not things are going okay.
We are also trying to put into place a system where there’s no stigma to asking for help. If you’re a sergeant and you’re worried about, Will I not be able to get my next promotion because I went to seek some counseling?, you’re not going to go get that counseling. So we are, on a constant basis, trying to tell all of our men and women that the opportunity to seek counseling, to talk to somebody, will never, never hurt your career path. It is something that cannot even be considered.
And the other part, of course, is making sure that the mission is right. That they have good leadership, and that there’s a support structure for the families as well. We are really, really fortunate that about 1 percent of the country is defending the rest of us. And we owe them a great debt of gratitude.
You recently traveled to Afghanistan and met with service members from Indiana. How are they doing?
The ones I happened to meet on this trip were all generally in their mid-20s to a little bit younger, and every single one of them was a whole lot more talented than I am. They’re smarter, they’re in better shape, and we can all as Hoosiers be incredibly proud of them. We have 21-, 22-, 23-year-olds who are almost running entire towns in Afghanistan, where they go off and meet with the tribal elders, and put together plans for water purification, and put together plans for how they’re going to have the local defense forces set up. Things we would never even dream of, they are doing it in an afternoon and then going back and doing more work that night. It truly is our best and brightest. They approach their job with a can-do spirit, and morale is very high.
And one of the greatest parts is that almost every single young man and woman will be back home here in Indiana, back home in our country, at the end of this year. We will likely have some forces that we keep there to continue to be trainers and advisors to the Afghan army, so they can carry the burden of their own country themselves. But other than that, almost every single Hoosier will be back in Muncie, and back in Richmond, and back in Terre Haute—back here where they should be.
I have tried to go to Afghanistan on a constant basis. When we were in Iraq, I tried to go there as well. Because I am making votes that regard their safety there. I have to make decisions that determine whether or not they stay there. If I’m asking them to be there, then I ought to fly over and see them, and spend time with them, and tell them how much everyone in Indiana cares about them, how much everyone in Indiana wants them to be safe and to be careful, and how everyone back home is so proud of them.
Purple Is the New Black
No one said being a Democrat in Indiana would be easy. But when the party runs the right candidate, voters seem to be okay with it.
Indiana is thought of as a state that leans Republican. But I think what we really lean is moderate to conservative. Our focus is about doing the job, trying to do it right, not worrying about party politics, and focusing on how to make things grow, how to make things work. I almost never heard from folks, “Oh, I’m not going to vote for you because you’re not a Republican.” That is not something you hear in Indiana. What I hear all the time is, “Talk about doing what’s right, talk about the basics, leave the politics someplace else, and we’ll take a look and think about voting for you. If you can make sure that our schools are better, that jobs get created, that our country is stronger, that we pay down our debt—do those things, and we’re good with that.”
The other day I ran into someone on your staff here in Indianapolis, and I remarked that it was a lucky break when Mourdock made his now-infamous remark. The staffer corrected me by pointing out that some polls had you leading even before then.
The message I tried to convey to everybody here was, look, I’m just going to represent you, your family, and your hopes and your dreams, to try to make our nation stronger, our state stronger—not worry about politics. I put my trust in the voters of this state, and if they thought that made sense, they’d give me the chance. And if they didn’t, I’d work on my resume and find another job.
I tried to approach it the same each day. My faith is important to me, so I’d say a little prayer every morning—“Lord, just help me to do the best that I can today, help me to treat people right, help me to make this a little bit better place at the end of the day,” and everything else seemed to take care of itself.
Did the shrill rhetoric of that race ever bother you?
You know, there was so much money that came in here, from all of these secret organizations with very patriotic-sounding names and not very patriotic actions. There’s not much you can do about that. I had extraordinary people who worked with me. And my family made it easy as well—to go home at night, see those smiling faces, and have your son laugh and say, “Dad, we heard you were coming in the door, so we turned off the TV.”
I have been a longtime believer in campaign-finance reform. Because it seems to me that special-interest groups from Montana or Oklahoma—or, in some cases, we didn’t even know if they were from other countries—shouldn’t be making these decisions for Hoosiers. It should be Hoosiers who make these decisions.
You were called an underdog going into that election. Do you think of yourself that way?
In the first congressional campaign I won, I was not supposed to have any chance to win. And then in 2010 I was not supposed to have any chance to win. I wouldn’t know what to do if somebody actually said I might win an election.
So you’re not used to starting out in front, huh?
I am a Democrat in Indiana.
This article appeared in the June 2014 Issue.