How the Supreme Court could alter the Indiana Senate race

In late June 2018, Democrat U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly was cruising toward reelection and was on a conference call with Hoosier agriculture reporters when he learned that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was retiring.

“It was like I got hit in the head with a baseball bat,” Donnelly told me. “I had been watching that like a hawk, because the way the Supreme Court operates, there’s a time when you really can’t resign after that point in the year, there are things you have to do to get ready for the next cycle. He had already hired clerks. By that time, you’re really in so deep you can’t leave. So, this was the final week when he could possibly consider; this was the end of the final week. I know how emotional Supreme Court nominations are.”

Donnelly ended up losing to Republican Mike Braun five months later, 51-45%, with the Republican carrying 84 counties. The Kennedy retirement and the volatile confirmation hearing of Judge Brett Kavanaugh a month before the election that included sketchy allegations that as a teenager he had sexually assaulted a girl completely roiled the Indiana Senate race.

The Kavanaugh confirmation sequence was a determinative one that may have decided this race. It gave President Trump more reasons to come to stump for Braun, showing up a half a dozen campaign rallies. It certainly ignited the Republican base. And it put Donnelly in a bind, eventually opposing the Kavanaugh confirmation.

This coming June, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision’s in the Mississippi case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has the potential to alter the political environment once again. Republican U.S. Sen. Todd Young is seeking a second term and will likely face Democrat Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr.

McDermott says that the potential for the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade next summer could be a huge break for his campaign. “I know many women are concerned about Roe v. Wade,” he said. “I think we know what happens when Roe is overturned, Todd Young has got a lot of explaining to do. Some women are going to love him for that and others are going be angry.”

McDermott said that if the Supreme Court announces a repeal of Roe next June, “that could energize my campaign.”

According to Planned Parenthood of Indiana & Kentucky, 50% of Hoosiers describe themselves as pro-choice while 49% are pro-life. A Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey earlier this month showed 54% opposed overturning Roe. v. Wade while 46% support. A November Quinnipiac poll found that 63% agree with the Roe v. Wade ruling; and 60% of respondents in a November Washington Post/ABC News poll and 58% of May Gallup respondents want the court to uphold the decision.

Sen. Young is a vociferous pro-life advocate, joining 200 Republicans in signing an amicus brief surrounding the Mississippi case, asking “the Court uphold Mississippi’s law as effectuating important state interests, or, alternatively, return this case to the lower courts for consideration.”

The State of Mississippi in 2018 enacted the Gestational Age Act, a state law prohibiting abortion after 15 weeks’ gestation, except in cases of medical emergency, prompting the Jackson Women’s Health Organization to sue, maintaining the law violates the viability standard established by Planned Parenthood v. Casey. 

“We are only one of seven countries around the world … that allows abortion to take place past the point at which a baby can feel pain in the womb,” Young told WIBC. “We join the likes of the Chinese Communist Party and the dictator in North Korea in our policies.”

Curt Smith, former president of the Indiana Family Institute, writes in a Howey Politics Indiana column that the pending SCOTUS ruling could alter the American political landscape. “First, if Roe v. Wade and its subsequent cases are struck down, abortion policy will drastically change,” Smith explained. “Fifty state legislatures will set abortion laws and limits, not nine Supreme Court justices in Washington, D.C. As a pro-life state (one advocacy group rates Indiana the fifth most pro-life state in America), Indiana will certainly immediately move to change abortion laws.

“Assuming the ruling comes down in late June of 2022 … there will be immediate calls for a special session of the Indiana General Assembly to restrict abortion,” Smith continued. “The politics of abortion would change immediately as well, and for the better, although it will be harder for the GOP to maintain its coalition without opposition to abortion as its central organizing principle. The focus of abortion lawmaking would then be in the states. No longer would U.S. Supreme Court nominees come under such intense scrutiny and slander. No longer would judicial appointments be such a strong issue in presidential politics. The energy for or against abortion would be diffused across 50 states and the nearly 7,400 state legislative races that fill those legislative seats.”

And Smith added, “This, too, would be a healthy development for national politics. As noted above, the GOP has relied on pro-life positions to maintain its wide vote margin with faith-based voters, who make up perhaps 28% of the population and more than half of the GOP base vote. With abortion no longer a national issue, the party will need to sharpen its policy focus to retain those voters.”

Look for Indiana’s Senate race as a potential post-Roe bellwether.

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.