Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and businessman and former state Rep. Mike Braun (R) clashed in their first Senate debate that was dominated by heated exchanges on health care, the Supreme Court confirmation fight and party leadership.
Donnelly is running for a second term in a state that President Trump won by 19 points in 2016. The Democratic senator highlighted his record of backing Trump’s agenda, while distancing himself from the Democratic Party. Braun continued to frame himself as a political outsider who’s running against someone he believes is a career politician who hasn’t delivered.
Here are five takeaways from Monday night’s debate.
Kavanaugh becomes major flashpoint
The deeply partisan, bitter fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court quickly grabbed the spotlight, illuminating one of the biggest differences between Donnelly and Braun that isn’t going away anytime soon.
Donnelly explained his vote against the confirmed Kavanaugh, who faced sexual assault allegations that he denied. Donnelly said he couldn’t support Kavanaugh over concerns about “impartiality and judicial temperament.”
Donnelly was one of the most-watched senators amid the Kavanaugh confirmation fight. Since saying he opposed his nomination, Braun has repeatedly hit him for what he believes is siding with Washington over Indiana. But Donnelly touted his vote for Trump’s first Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch, one of three Democratic senators to join Republicans in backing him.
“I voted against Judge Kavanaugh because of concerns about his impartiality and concerns about his judicial temperament,” Donnelly said. “My job is not only to determine the nominee but to protect the court. Justice Gorsuch met every test.”
“Mike was for Judge Kavanaugh on the first day,” he added. “If President Trump put up Bugs Bunny, Mike would have put him up on the court.”
Braun labeled the issue as a “clear separator” between the two candidates, accusing Donnelly of joining Democrats in obstruction of Kavanaugh’s nomination. The Indiana Republican argued that Donnelly fell in line on the issue with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
“I think what you should have gotten from the recent spectacle, Democrats including Joe Donnelly will do or say anything when it comes to their political interests,” Braun said.
“It’s a blood sport— it’s a decision based not on what Hoosiers want but what Chuck Schumer wants.”
Dems think health care is a winning issue
Donnelly focused heavily on health care in the debate, repeatedly referencing his support of the Affordable Care Act and its protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions.
It’s a familiar theme in competitive Senate races this year, with red-state Democrats trying to tie Republicans to the Trump administration’s efforts to “sabotage” the health care law.
A main facet of that strategy is highlighting the administration’s argument that ObamaCare’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions should be struck down in a pending lawsuit.
“Stand here tonight and tell us you’ll denounce that lawsuit — that you’ll denounce that effort on pre-existing conditions,” Donnelly challenged Braun.
Braun didn’t do that, instead arguing that while he supports those protections, ObamaCare is “falling apart.”
Donnelly repeatedly said he was the “deciding vote” to save those protections, referring to his vote last year against the GOP’s ObamaCare repeal bill.
“Hoosiers, clearest difference. He won’t even denounce the lawsuit that will take away your coverage for pre-existing conditions. I’m the person who cast the final vote to make sure your child with asthma can get their inhaler,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly also hit Braun on the health care he offers his employees, citing a story that claims its deductibles are upwards of $5,000.
“I took on the insurance companies when no one else would,” Braun said. “It might not be a perfect plan, but it’s a great plan.”
Donnelly goes on offense
It didn’t take long for the debate to turn contentious and Donnelly took the first shot in his opening statement.
“Mike, you need to do more than take your tie off to gain the trust of Indiana,” Donnelly quipped about Braun, who frequently wears a blue-collared shirt with no tie.
The negative tenor of the race is emblematic of a too-close-to-call race that’s likely to help determine which party controls the Senate. Donnelly went on offense, attacking Braun on his business and legislative record and cutting in several times.
Donnelly cast Braun as someone who would be unequivocally in lock-step with Trump — making the jab that Braun would back Bugs Bunny if the president nominated him to the high court.
Braun also took shots at Donnelly, painting him as someone who will put Democratic leaders in Washington over Hoosiers. And the Republican businessman also pointed out the negative tone and attacks from his opponent.
“When I get there, you can count on me to do things. And he’s running a campaign of negativity because of his record,” Braun said. “Wrong on almost everything including Judge Kavanaugh.”
Red-state Dems quick to praise Trump
Like many Democrats up in Trump states, Donnelly hasn’t shied away from praising Trump when there’s common ground, while also keeping some distance from the Democratic Party.
When asked by a member of the audience if the candidates will buck party for the “will of the people,” Donnelly highlighted his record of siding with Trump, saying he’s voted with the president 62 percent of the time.
“I go against my party all the time,” Donnelly said, noting his votes for Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation and Right to Try legislation. “That’s a regular for me.”
“That’s what we’re supposed to do,” he continued. “I don’t think it’s about party.”
But as Donnelly sought to show alignment with Trump, Braun laid out the issues where the Indiana Democrat doesn’t match up with the president and most Republicans. And like many Republicans, they’re hoping Schumer will be an effective political boogeyman.
“It’s his record that we’re litigating this evening. When you try to turn attention to other issues, it means you’re probably embarrassed about your own record,” Braun said.
“He voted for ObamaCare originally, he voted against its repeal, he voted for the Iran deal, he voted against tax reform…and then here, he voted against Judge Kavanaugh. He says for other reasons but he did it because he takes his marching orders from Chuck Schumer.”
Braun casts himself as a Trump-like outsider
Braun cast himself as an “outsider” businessman, while painting Donnelly as a “career politician” who gets briefed by lobbyists.
“Goodness, why don’t we give a chance to other people that have done things in the real world,” Braun lamented at one point.
Braun, a millionaire who runs a national auto parts distribution company, has little experience in politics, though he did serve for three years as a state representative.
But, he said, “I’ve done things in the real world. This gentlemen is a career politician. That’s part of the problem.”
Braun tried to tie himself to Trump, arguing that his private sector experience is part of what makes him a successful president, using the U.S.’s recent talks with North Korea as an example.
“We have never been this close to something actually being done, and I think that’s what you’re going to get out of people who think a little differently,” he said.