WASHINGTON — Sen. Joe Donnelly — one of the most vulnerable Democrats facing re-election this year in a state President Trump easily carried — has been careful not to be too critical of the president.
But Donnelly is not showing the same hesitancy about criticizing the vice president — even though Mike Pence is from Donnelly's own state.
"We thought we'd gotten rid of (Pence) — but now he's coming back (to Indiana) with plans to attack Joe," Peter Hanscom, Donnelly's campaign manager says in a fundraising appeal sent out Monday. "Hoosiers know better than anyone exactly how much damage Mike Pence can cause."
The solicitation was sent the week after Donnelly's campaign touted the fact that a nonpartisan study showed he voted with Trump more often than all but two other Senate Democrats last year.
Playing up his support for parts of Trump's agenda while reminding Hoosier voters of some of the controversial aspects of Pence's gubernatorial record is a little dangerous, said Andy Downs, director of the Fort Wayne-based Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics.
"But it's doable," Downs said. "I really think you can get away with criticizing Pence, and not Trump, in Indiana."
U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly through the years
Pence was not particularly popular in Indiana when Trump chose him as a running mate in 2016, Downs said. Although he would not have necessarily lost his re-election bid had he stayed on the gubernatorial ticket, there were still plenty of voters upset about how Pence handled some issues,including passage of a "religious freedom" law that critics said could be used to discriminate against gay men and lesbians.
"Let's not forget that as governor, Pence signed a discriminatory law that ruined our reputation while costing Indiana millions of dollars," Hanscom says in Donnelly's fundraising appeal. The solicitation also mentions Pence's rejection of millions of federal dollars in pre-school funding.
"Now, as vice president, he even cast the tie-breaking vote to confirm Betsy DeVos!" Hanscom wrote of Trump's education secretary.
In the campaign's release last week, by contrast, Hanscom drew attention to Donnelly's votes for the majority of Trump's cabinet, and for Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. Donnelly, the release says, also worked with the administration on imposing sanctions against North Korea and addressing the opioid epidemic.
Donnelly ended up siding with Trump on 62 percent of the Senate votes cast in 2017 for which Trump had taken a position, according to Congressional Quarterly. (Votes with a clear presidential stance represented slightly more than one-third of the 177 Senate votes held last year.)
While Senate Democrats voted against Trump 61 percent of the time, Donnelly did so only 38 percent of the time.
Republicans argue Donnelly still votes with fellow Democrats when it counts most.
"Indiana families deserve a U.S. Senator who votes with them 100 percent of the time," said Rep. Luke Messer, one of the three Republicans vying for the nomination to challenge Donnelly.
Messer sent out his own fundraising request Monday for an "urgent contribution" to "show you have the vice president's back and will send him an ally in the Senate."
Rep. Todd Rokita, who is also running for the nomination to take on Donnelly, tweeted that Donnelly acts like he stands with Trump, but then goes to his liberal donors to attack Trump and Pence.
Pence plans on being very active in this year's elections. He told Politico he's taking particular aim at Democrats in red states who oppose Trump's agenda.
“I expect we’re going to spend a fair amount of time in the states that the president carried very strongly — Indiana being one of them," Pence said.
That quote is highlighted in Donnelly's fundraising appeal.