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In Monroe County, different Democrat identities find opportunity to coexist

Vivek Rao

Less than two months out from Election Day, Democrats in Bloomington have stepped up their ground game in an effort to achieve victory up and down the ballot. 

The endeavor comes amidst a national conversation regarding the identity of the Democratic Party. 

The two Democratic candidates for federal office on Bloomington ballots this November are Liz Watson — running to unseat incumbent Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-9th District — and Joe Donnelly, the incumbent U.S. Senator defending his seat against Republican challenger Mike Braun. 

Donnelly has positioned himself as a more moderate Democrat, voting in the Senate to fund President Trump’s border wall and even including Trump in a recent campaign advertisement. Watson is running a more progressive campaign focused on issues of social justice and Medicare for all. 

On a national level, they'd appear to represent two wings of the party working to control the message. But their strategies aren't mutually exclusive, some Monroe County Democrats say. 

“Joe Donnelly and Liz Watson are much more similar than Joe Donnelly and Mike Braun, for example, or Joe Donnelly and President Trump,” said Mark Fraley, chair of the Monroe County Democratic Party.

Fraley said Democrats in Monroe County have a clear choice when it comes to their Senate candidate and recognize that Donnelly would be a more consistent ally than his opponent. He noted that Watson and Donnelly agree on many issues, like taxes, and that the different campaign messages may also be a matter of constituency — the 9th District versus the whole state.

Raegan Davis, president of College Democrats at IU, said if Donnelly and Watson were running against each other, tension between different Democratic identities would be more at play. Since voters don’t have to choose between the two, it gives the candidates more room to coexist, regardless of whether the campaigns work closely with one another. 

But that doesn't mean Bloomington Democrats feel a need to sacrifice their principles, regardless of how they'll vote in the Senate race.

“I do think that we certainly have a much more progressive base here, and they're not going to be in lockstep with Donnelly on a lot of different issues, and they’re not going to love all of his ads,” Fraley said.

Both campaigns have hit the ground running in Monroe County. The area is one of the few Democratic strongholds in a state Trump won by 19 points in 2016. The 9th District, which Watson is running to represent, includes Monroe County but also extends all the way down to the state’s southern border.

Watson’s campaign has registered about 2,600 voters on campus since the start of the semester. It has almost 100 IU student volunteers and an additional 350 non-student volunteers and employees in Monroe County, said campaign manager Brian Peters.

“We have a real opportunity here,” Peters said in an interview. “This is the most exciting congressional race in Indiana. Liz is a Red to Blue candidate. We have a really interesting race going on.”

Red to Blue candidates are those identified by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as integral part of its strategy to flip the House. The goal of the DCCC is equipping those candidates with enough resources to make that happen.

The Donnelly campaign has about 60 IU students volunteering and another 150 volunteers and employees in Monroe County alone. Donnelly has made six stops in Bloomington this year, including two since the beginning of August, according to the campaign.

“Joe is running to be the hired help in the Senate for all Hoosiers, and we’re campaigning hard in all 92 counties, including Monroe,” said Conner Klotz, Donnelly for Indiana spokesman. “Joe’s message of hard work and common sense is resonating with Hoosiers all over the state, including students at IU and residents of Bloomington, and they’re chipping in to make sure Joe is re-elected in November.”

Donnelly is at the head of a coordinated down-ballot campaign  — meaning candidates for local, state and federal offices organizing closely with one another in their strategy and messaging.

Watson’s campaign exists outside of the coordinated structure, though their efforts can benefit each other. 

“Everything Liz Watson does to turn out Democratic voters helps the coordinated campaign and vice-versa,” Fraley said. “We need Joe Donnelly, we need Liz Watson, and we need to do everything that we can to campaign vigorously to make sure those two are elected.”

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