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Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly Discusses His Campaign To Defend His Seat In Indiana


It's primary day in eight states today. By the end of today, 21 states will have weighed in on who will be on the ballot in November. Senator Joe Donnelly is a freshman senator from Indiana. He was uncontested in the Democratic primary in his state last month. But he is up for re-election this year, and his seat is a top target for Republicans looking to retain control of the Senate. I started off by asking him why it's so hard for Democrats to win in Indiana.

JOE DONNELLY: Well, you know, I don't know that I'd agree with the premise of the question when you talk about Indiana being difficult for Democrats. I think Indiana is a state that rewards hard work, that rewards common sense. And, you know, I think when you focus on the kind of things that are important to people - jobs, stopping the scourge of opioids, standing up for our veterans, you know, fighting for affordable health care - I think that's actually what Hoosiers are looking for.

SHAPIRO: So do you think there is something you are doing that other Democrats around the U.S. can learn from?

DONNELLY: Well, you know, my focus isn't about Democrat or Republican. It is about, how do we make the lives of everyday friends and neighbors better? I think when we focus on the meat and potatoes not only as a party but as a country, we do really well.

SHAPIRO: What do you hear when you go out and talk to voters who supported President Trump in 2016 and supported you six years ago?

DONNELLY: They talk to me about continuing to focus on things that are of importance, making sure that their paycheck can get bigger, that our country continues to grow stronger, that for our men and women who are serving our nation who in many cases are their sons and daughters or brothers or sisters, it is, how do we make our country stronger? How do we continue to focus on the basic core American values of good jobs, of faith and family and community?

SHAPIRO: You say people are focused on their jobs, their paychecks. Republicans say this economy is strong under the leadership of our party. Does that make it difficult for Democrats this year?

DONNELLY: No. I don't see that it makes it difficult at all because in 2009 in various parts of my state, unemployment was over 21 percent. When President Obama left office in 2016, in many of those same areas, the companies were giving out bonuses to be able to hire enough workers. And so we continue to move forward on the economic front, but that's an economic front that we've been moving forward on for many years.

SHAPIRO: You have voted with the president more than 50 percent of the time. You voted to confirm Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspel to lead the State Department and the CIA. On the other hand, you voted against the Republican tax overhaul. Do you worry that by bucking the president in some areas and supporting him in others, you may wind up with no one in your corner?

DONNELLY: No. I don't worry about that at all because my job isn't to put a finger in the air and say how many people support this position or how many people support that position. My job is to do what's right for America. That's what we all should be doing. That's why I voted against a tax bill that made it so that any increase you may have gotten in your paycheck is going to be wiped out by increased health care premiums. That - it created a deficit, the McConnell tax plan, that would land on our kids' shoulders that they'll be paying for decades and decades. And so you try to do what's right, and Hoosiers have always told me, do what's right. And that's how the decisions are made.

SHAPIRO: Senator Donnelly, there used to be a lot of people like you in the Senate - Democrats who would vote with Republicans when they thought it was the right thing to do, Republicans who would vote with Democrats when they thought it was the right thing to do. Those kinds of people have left in large numbers in the last decade or two. Do you think there is still a space for moderates?

DONNELLY: Oh, sure. I mean, if you look, that's how the Senate has always operated over the years, that people of goodwill could come together and, when an issue was put forward, didn't matter whether you're a Democrat or Republican. What mattered was, how does it move our country forward?

SHAPIRO: It sounds like you have decided it's not helpful to be tied to a D next to your name. Like, you're trying to maybe distance yourself from that label.

DONNELLY: No. I think that's unfair to say. I'm not trying to tie myself to one label or another label. My label is a Hoosier label. My label as an American label. And that's what we all should be doing.

SHAPIRO: Senator Donnelly, thanks so much for talking with us today.

DONNELLY: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: That's Senator Joe Donnelly, Democrat of Indiana. And you can hear more on the 2018 midterms with special coverage later tonight on your NPR station. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.