IMPORTANTVILLE — During the sensational 2016 presidential race, Republican Donald Trump barnstormed our state and in one impromptu moment, deemed himself to be in a fictitious city that becomes this column’s dateline. Our president doesn’t always adhere to the normal conventions of truth, but I borrow his imaginary city to pose the Indiana of 2018 as stationed at the center of the political universe, just as it was two years ago.
As we head into 2018, this state stands at a nexus that eclipses the nation and world. Indiana is poised for what I’ve been calling the $100 million U.S. Senate race that could determine which party controls the upper chamber. U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly is seeking a second term and will likely face either U.S. Reps. Todd Rokita, Luke Messer, or former legislator Mike Braun of Jasper.
Many observers rate Donnelly one of the most vulnerable Democrats, but he has cris-crossed this state over the past five years and felt comfortable enough to vote against the Republican tax reforms last month. Rokita and Messer, who once consistently warned of saddling their children with towering national debt, just voted to add $1.5 trillion more. But, if in the coming months, Hoosiers deem the tax cut worthy and jobs and wages grow, it may prove to be good politics. Braun is the “outsider” who built a big corporation in his hometown and may provide the best contrast to Donnelly, given that the approval of Congress stands below 20 percent.
We watch in fascination as Vice President Mike Pence and Director of National Security Dan Coats attempt to keep President Trump within the guardrails, as his volatility via Twitter rattles everywhere from Congress to capitals around the world. This surfaced once again this past week when Trump goaded North Korea tyrant Kim Jong Un via tweet, bragging that the size of his nuclear “button” (Trump has a fixation on size) is bigger than the despot’s.
Trump should be a wildly popular president as the economy hums, unemployment is low and Wall Street roars. But his tweets and lack of discipline are responsible for almost all of his legal and political problems, from Robert Mueller’s Russia collusion probe of the Trump campaign, to his assaults on U.S. intelligence agencies, to our allies. Reporter Mike Allen of Axios reports that West Wingers are startled. “Every war in history was an accident,” said one administration insider. The danger here is that Kim is also an unpredictable actor, and not one fully understood by U.S. intelligence. “We are in a hair-trigger environment. And this is potentially a shooting war with nuclear risk,” the insider told Axios.
Some describe Pence as Trump’s “bootlicker,” but it’s possible that future accounts of history will conclude that Pence exudes loyalty and crooning deference to keep the president on the reservation. That’s a tough task when former Trump campaign chairman Steve Bannon tells “Fire and Fury” author Michael Wolff that Trump’s children and campaign manager may have committed “treason” when they met with Russian henchmen connected to President Vladimir Putin.
Indiana is mired in an opioid epidemic, and this places Gov. Eric Holcomb and key members of his administration on the front lines of one of the most compelling and lethal health dilemmas to hit this state in a generation. Failure on this front means swamped county jails which have become akin to drug treatment facilities, to local schools with limited budgets, unable to keep up with a flood of special needs children, many who are being raised by their grandparents. Prosecutors are beginning to charge heroin dealers with murder.
Gov. Holcomb and Vice President Pence often talk about states being the best laboratories of innovation. With the opioid epidemic, our leaders, our research institutions like Indiana and Ball State universities which have joined the fight, and our advanced manufacturing and bioscience sectors face daunting, yet thrilling challenges. A pandemic, such as polio that once haunted America, can forge some brilliant breakthroughs.
Are Hoosiers up to the challenge?
Because this is an election year, Indiana Democrats face a monumental task. They control less than a third of General Assembly seats, three of 11 congressional seats and none of the Statehouse constitutional offices. If Democrats can’t make inroads in a potential 2018 wave, Indiana could remain, essentially, a one-party state. Chairman John Zody tells me he has conducted 15 town halls, trained more than 1,000 volunteers and potential candidates, and believes his party will end the super majorities.
We have entered an era when norms are being shattered in Trump’s disruptive presidency. Mark Schoeff Jr., who is Howey Politics Indiana’s longtime Washington correspondent, points to the dangers facing the GOP. “Republican members of the Indiana congressional delegation have done nothing to put any distance between themselves and Trump with the possible exception — but only in a relative sense — of Rep. Jim Banks. When the Trump administration collapses, none of them will have so much as a courageous statement, let alone a courageous vote, to give them political cover. In this case, silence erodes integrity.”
An electoral wipe out will change Trump’s cult of personality hold over the GOP, possibly by the November elections.
So here we are in Importantville, Indiana. The whole world will be watching.
— Brian Howey is publisher of the Howey Political Report, a weekly briefing on Indiana politics. Contact him at 317-506-0883 or at: howeypol itics.com.