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In contrast to Pa., N.J. House contests, a very different Trump effect defines key Senate races

While Democrats around Philadelphia and other major cities seem to have the upper hand in the race for the House, there's a much different battlefield in the Senate, and the contrast could well produce conflicting results on Election Day.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike Braun speaks at the Indiana Republican Party Fall Dinner in Indianapolis, Friday, Oct. 12, 2018.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike Braun speaks at the Indiana Republican Party Fall Dinner in Indianapolis, Friday, Oct. 12, 2018.Read moreMICHAEL CONROY / AP

VALPARAISO, Ind. — About 60 Republicans have gathered in a barnlike 4-H building in this small Northwestern Indiana city, many eager to get to the big Friday night high school football game. But Mike Braun has their attention.

In a blue shirt and gray fleece vest, Braun calls himself "a feisty entrepreneur from Southern Indiana" and draws a direct line between himself and President Trump.

"I was fed up with business as usual," says Braun, a former state legislator now running for the U.S. Senate. But after a "brash New Yorker" shook up the political system with an outsider perspective, he said, "we've got a rare opportunity," and Trump needs "reinforcements."

Indiana's Democratic incumbent, Sen. Joe Donnelly, meanwhile, is running a television ad declaring his support for Trump's border wall and his opposition to "radical left" calls to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and saying socialized medicine will take hold "over my dead body."

The race and the postures toward Trump are the polar opposite of the suburban House campaigns dominating election season in the Philadelphia region. The differences illustrate the sharply contrasting battlefields in the House and Senate, which could well produce a split result on Election Day.

In House races across the country, Democrats are on the march in moderate, suburban areas where voters have recoiled from Trump, opening a path to take the majority.

Nearly all of the most competitive Senate races, meanwhile, are playing out in conservative states where Trump won big in 2016 — giving Republicans hope of not just holding their 51-49 majority, but possibly expanding it.

"The House & Sen might as well be Mars & Venus this year," Cook Political Report elections analyst David Wasserman wrote on Twitter.

So while Republican House candidates in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have kept Trump at arm's length in their campaigns, GOP challengers in key Senate races have embraced him and painted Democrats as extremist obstacles to the president's agenda. Many of those targeted Democrats, in turn, have stressed their willingness to work across the aisle.

One, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, is closing with a radio ad proclaiming she's not "one of those crazy Democrats."

Democrats still have a narrow path to winning the Senate, but it would take an extraordinary string of victories in states where Trump rolled in 2016, such as North Dakota, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arizona, Texas and others.

(New Jersey is an outlier: a blue state where the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Bob Menendez, is threatened.)

Some Democrats have taken solace in the realization it could be worse. Democratic incumbents in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan all states Trump won, appear safe.

In Indiana, though, Donnelly is locked in a fierce battle as the campaign heads into its final days. Recent polling has suggested that Braun has built a lead — but a tight one.

One table at the Boos Crossroads Cafe in Terre Haute, Ind., reflects the narrow margins.

In one seat is Bob Murray, who supported John F. Kennedy in 1960, but after that voted for every Republican presidential nominee — until 2016. "I could not stomach voting for either one of those two idiots," he says of Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Over Earl Grey tea, he calls Trump "a jerk," and blames the president's "asinine Tweets" for making politics even more toxic. Despite normally conservative leanings, Murray, a retired accountant, voted for Donnelly.

"He strikes me as a bit more willing to work across the aisle," Murray said.

"Except he hasn't voted that way," interjected his friend Jim Hunter. Hunter, 74, works in insurance and supports Braun, and Trump's policies — if not the president's behavior.

"A lot of what he's done has been excellent for the country. I just think he needs to keep his mouth shut," Hunter says over coffee.

They agree on a few things though: Both say voters in Terre Haute are mostly worried about local issues, such as school funding and a proposed new jail. And they are sick of the attack ads.

Donnelly, like Pennsylvania's Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, is a low-profile senator who casts himself as a relative moderate. He's a former U.S. representative from the state's northwest, where many towns are closer to Chicago than Indianapolis. He won a Senate seat in 2012, as Barack Obama lost Indiana by nearly 10 percentage points.

Trump roughly doubled the GOP margin four years later. The president has held two rallies for Braun, and slapped Donnelly with the nickname "Sleepin'" Joe, the same one he used for Casey.

In Valparaiso, Braun, 64, is wrapping up a day of campaigning that began nearly 12 hours ago and more than 250 miles south, in his hometown near the Kentucky border.

He says that he, like Trump, comes from "the real world." The owner of an auto parts distribution company, he uses the phrase three times in a nine-minute speech.

Braun says the negative ads are coming from Chuck Schumer, the Democrats' Senate leader, with "George Soros paying for it."

He spoke hours after a Florida man was arrested for mailing homemade bombs to Democratic leaders, CNN and Soros, a mega-donor who funds Democratic causes.

Asked why Indiana has embraced Trump while other places, like the Philadelphia suburbs, reject him, Braun says, "We live in the mainstream real world, where we're looking for results and we make the simplest calculation. If you're happy with business as usual, you would have voted for Hillary Clinton."

Donnelly, 63, has tried to follow in the tradition of other moderate Indiana senators, arguing that he's not in lockstep with either Democratic leaders or Trump, said Andrew Downs, a political scientist at Purdue University's campus in Fort Wayne. That's the same kind of closing argument that Republican House members are trying in the contrasting political turf of the Philadelphia suburbs, where Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Bucks County and Tom MacArthur of South Jersey each argue they are focused on local issues and not uniformly supporting or opposing the president.

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"What Donnelly is trying to do is align himself with policies, not with Trump. There's a difference," Downs said.

In La Porte, part of Donnelly's old congressional district, the county GOP's vice chair, Carol Laun, says she's known Donnelly "forever."

"If he was walking down the street, he'd say, 'Hi, Carol!'" she said. But she rolls her eyes at his ads touting support for Trump ideas. "Oh, come on."

(Donnelly's campaign did not respond to repeated requests for opportunities to cover his events.)

Republicans have sought to pierce Donnelly's credentials as an independent by pointing to his votes against Trump's tax cuts, the GOP attempt to roll back the Affordable Care Act, and the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

That last vote, Republicans, believe, could put Braun over the top.

"From the moment that occurred, we could see that there was energy throughout the state," Braun said.

Outside a Walmart in Clinton, Doug Hess illustrated the point.

"I hadn't really paid too much attention to that race yet, but that probably brought it more into focus," Hess, 45, said of the Kavanaugh debate. "I don't think Donnelly showed leadership. He was waiting to see which way the wind was going to blow."

In nearby Terre Haute, regulars at the Crossroads Cafe are used to out-of-state reporters — many have been interviewed multiple times. The city of about 61,000, about 70 miles west of Indianapolis and almost at the Illinois border, is the seat of Vigo County, which has voted for the winning presidential candidate in all but two elections since the late 1800s.

Larry Bird played basketball there at Indiana State University, and there's a statue of him downtown, but the city has faced hard economic times. Like many areas that have struggled, the county swung to Trump — he won 55 percent of the vote.

At the cafe, Bill Hughes and Margaret and Paul Roby hope it quickly swings back.

"I've been really upset with the TV campaigns of both Braun and Donnelly, although I'll vote for the Democrat without hesitating, because I think the alternative is just not good," said Hughes, a retired music teacher, 75.

Margaret Roby, a piano teacher, said her family once had many Republicans — but any that were left fled under Trump. She doesn’t like Donnelly’s flirtation with Trump’s policies, but says, “100 percent I’ll support Donnelly, because there’s no alternative.”