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Vigo Shrugged

In Indiana, a “split-the-difference” Democrat fails to inspire voters

Terre Haute, Indiana, sits on the banks of the Wabash River, on the western edge of the state. Flanked against the river or some distance from it lurk the abandoned hulks of empty factories and the warehouses that once stocked the supplies for them. Graffiti sprayed on most of them and the general state of decrepitude makes it difficult to tell whether the businesses were boarded up last year or a decade or two earlier. In late 2017, a Kellogg plant was shuttered; so was a plant that manufactures railroad ties, and a Sony disc plant laid off more than 300 workers. The workers once employed near the mills and factories lived two or three streets deeper into the city, in small houses that may once have represented an agile upward mobility. Not anymore; the paint that was once pale blue or yellow is peeling. In the yards, abandoned toys and furniture compete with Trump signs.

Vigo County, in which Terre Haute is ensconced, is important because it has become known as one of those places that reliably predicts the winner of the presidential election. “Vigo almost always gets it right,” the New York Times noted last October, “having voted against the winning presidential candidate only twice in more than a century — picking Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and William Jennings Bryan in 1908.” The county went for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but swung strongly for Trump in 2016.

The bellwether county did not pick a winner this time, at least not where the United States Senate was concerned. Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly won here, by the barest of margins. But he lost his seat to the Republican challenger, Mike Braun. Vigo County more or less shrugged, and Donnelly needed big returns in on-the-cusp counties like this to help him counteract the solid-red rural areas that make up most of the state. Therein lies an important lesson for Democrats. The failure to have something to say, something to promise, something to provide hope for in places like this, once a union stronghold, is precisely what could lead the Democrats to yet another loss in 2020.

The failure to have something to say, something to promise, something to provide hope for in places like this, could lead the Democrats to yet another loss in 2020.

Vigo County’s demographics: poor whites who have long given up searching for jobs, mixed in with students, teachers, and administrators at the five colleges in the county, including Indiana State University. There is a raging opiate epidemic that has left the county’s courts and social services overburdened. If you make your way into the courthouse that rises up from the flat of surrounding strip malls, case after case involves divorce and custody hearings. Neither side typically has lawyers; both usually have addiction issues. Most other people, the professors and local doctors with some disposable income, tend to go east to Indianapolis to spend their money, making weekend trips to malls and expensive restaurants.

Not much had changed around these parts as the midterms rolled around this year. The robust economy and the optimistic job numbers have not served up an improvement in the fortunes of most inhabitants in Vigo County. And yet, this fact—that the tax cuts were for the wealthy, that the Medicaid expansions that had paid for rehab or labor and delivery or heart surgery would likely be rolled back by the party they voted for—did not seem to worry the rural voters throughout Indiana. On November 6, when the returns came in, the people of Vigo County had turned out but ultimately gave a split-decision: out of more than 31,000 votes, Donnelly won by 341. Meanwhile, Braun carried the state with about a 52 percent to 44 percent margin.

Places like Vigo County, and the fact that a Democrat could just barely eke out a win here, confront the Democratic Party with a hard truth: if swing districts like this one, with its post-industrial mess and urgent need for some sort of economic revival, cannot be wrested away from the Trump camp then similar results will likely prevail throughout the sometimes-winnable rest of the Midwest.

East of Vigo, in Marion County, home of the Indianapolis Speedway, and the Colts, and Indiana’s largest city, other challenges were visible. Marion, with its large African-American population (about 29 percent), was another county that Donnelly won and another county that wasn’t enough. Here too, the cracks in the Democratic narrative of attracting white, college educated voters were apparent. On North Meridian Street in Indianapolis, a street lined with mansions, including one that was the home of early modern author Booth Tarkington, there was a strong showing of Braun signs. This is where the myth of the poor and rural white voter as the cause of Republican electoral success dissipates; the residents of these homes are wealthy and have college educations. The fact that a number of them, particularly those in suburban Hamilton County to the north chose to support a candidate who is a darling of the president reveals something that the Democrats must contend with if they want to win in 2020: counting on a “nice” or “bipartisan” candidate to outclass the boorish Trump isn’t going to be enough.

Joe Donnelly’s approach was to go faux-folksy. For one of his campaign commercials, aired again and again in Indiana, he wore a gray checked shirt and chopped wood. The effect was the opposite of what he may have hoped. Instead of coming across as an Indiana boy doing Indiana things, Donnelly appeared inauthentic, almost play-acting a “real” Hoosier. His opponent, he reminded the audience amidst the chopping wood, was a wealthy businessman who “ships jobs to China.” It was a well-meaning effort, but it could not compete against the threat of an invasion of brown migrants taking away the meager lot Hoosiers felt they just had to defend.

Here was a strategy that was the stunted and stillborn twin to the vitality-infused message sold by Democrats like Beto O’Rourke. O’Rourke managed to get 48 percent of the vote in the Texas race against Senator Ted Cruz; his campaign was a hopeful one, signifying an attempt to change a demographic, and his own faith in a message not being sold by the other party. Donnelly relied too much on trying to sound Republican while being an almost apologetic Democrat; he noted in August that he had voted three times to give Trump additional funding for a wall along the border with Mexico. It seems never to have occurred to him to actually own being a Democrat and offering the opposite of the fear-mongering doomsday scenarios being put forth by his opponents.

In a state that is, like so many other Midwestern states, resentful about being “flyover country,” the going-high rhetoric of the Obamas simply falls flat.

Braun emphasized that Donnelly had more in common with the New York Democrat and minority leader Chuck Schumer than he did with the Republican majority. It was not difficult to remind Hoosier voters that despite the posturing as an almost Republican, Donnelly was, like the much detested Nancy Pelosi and Schumer, a Democrat. These Democrats, the argument went, are not like us. Cast in the shades of Trump’s rhetoric, a Democrat could no longer be a “real” Hoosier.

Then again, there was the Trump effect. Braun was loyal to Trump and Trump was eager to pay back. He came to Indiana often, speaking to large crowds at rallies in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. Even before those rallies, Trump’s speech at the Future Farmers of America convention, chock full as it was with the rural youth, drove home the image that Hoosiers have already bought that the Republican Party represents them and their culture better than the Democrats. Democrats sensed this and Donnelly likely did too, and the ex-presidential cavalry was called in. Barack Obama addressed a last-minute rally in Gary, the state’s majority black city, exhorting his audience to go out and vote.

It did not work. Before a state that is, like so many other Midwestern states, resentful about being “flyover country,” the going-high rhetoric of the Obamas simply falls flat. For one, it refuses to address the rage many feel about being left out of a new service and technology economy that no longer needs people who make things. There was little to nothing for them in Obama’s speeches, which were mostly revamped versions of the ones offered up in 2016. Fiery speeches about the caravan being a “political stunt” may have warmed the hearts of Democrats nostalgic for the halcyon days of Obama, but for voters in Indiana they were simply a blast from the past. After all they had voted for Obama in 2008, and not enough saw economic results to match the soaring rhetoric.

Mike Braun was able to play a double game. To the college-educated Republicans who sported his signs on North Meridian Street and further north in the tony suburb of Carmel, he presented himself as a twin to Republicans like former Indiana Senator Dan Coats, who currently serves as Trump’s Director of National Intelligence. Coats, it must be remembered, was an administration insider who insisted on the facts regarding Russian involvement in the previous election without actually criticizing Trump. To well-to-do Hoosiers looking for some hint of old-style Republican pragmatism, this was enough. If Braun was like Coats, he deserved to win.

In the background of the race was Trump’s enraged railing against the caravan of refugees from Central America, against the impending invasion of the United States, of the need to build the border wall. Indiana may not be a border state, but it is a state full of people who are angry and resentful, more inclined to hate than to love. It is the age of rage in Indiana, and the Democrats failed to understand that; they failed to offer up a candidate who could tap into that, or address it, or present at least the possibility of something better or something different. A walk through Terre Haute would be instructive in that regard, a walk through abandoned factories, a walk through potholed streets where wan and pale teen mothers wheel strollers, a walk through the courthouse parking lot where grandmothers tend to children while their parents attend court dates. For all the grim reality of their conditions, one might wonder how a television ad showing a prosperous man chopping wood was meant to inspire hope. Donnelly didn’t seem to hold faith that there are many people who want to believe in something other than the malevolent and fetid hatred peddled by the other side. Indeed, the point of his wood-chopping ad was that “I split with my own party” to support the border wall and the extension of the Bush tax cuts. His campaign web site trumpeted a Congressional Quarterly study that showed Donnelly voted with Trump 62 percent of the time. This was a sign, his campaign manager said, of his “bipartisan successes.”

But in 2018, a lot of Hoosiers were still eager to chant “Drain the Swamp” with Trump. Fueling the chants and the votes that followed was the belief that only Republican votes could represent their anger, the fear that they constantly felt, the pessimism that poisoned their lives. Theirs were not lives that could care about civility, or compassion, or some imagined high-minded bipartisan success; theirs is the realm of rage.