Carrier Corporation had just announced it would close its Indianapolis factory and shift production to Mexico early in 2016 and Chuck Jones was getting ready to address dozens of doomed workers at the United Steelworkers Local 1999 union hall.
Then Jones, the union president at the time, noticed a bit of a commotion: Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) had entered the room. He hadn’t been expecting a senator to show up, especially since he thought Congress was in session back in Washington.
“That showed me a lot,” Jones said. “He at least made an appearance to try to assure people he was going to do everything he could.”
Donnelly did a lot to insert himself into the 2016 Carrier story, but President Donald Trump overshadowed him when he swooped in later that year with a deal that saved the factory. After Trump moved on to other things, however, Donnelly continued to make noise about other Indiana factory workers losing their jobs to Mexico.
And yet one of the biggest rips on Donnelly as he fights to hold onto his Senate seat this fall is that he is supposedly responsible for shipping jobs overseas. Republicans have taken to calling him ”Mexico Joe,″ and the latest TV ad from his opponent, Republican Mike Braun, depicts Donnelly’s family business shipping boxes that say “CONTAINS HOOSIER JOBS” and “TO: MEXICO.”
Democrats have a chance to retake the U.S. Senate in November, but they’ll need Donelly to fend off a strong challenge from Braun, a businessman and former member of the state legislature. But Braun has one big problem: He happens to own an auto parts distribution company that imports products from China. That means control of the upper chamber in Congress could come down to which of these guys gets blamed for exporting the most American jobs.
On Tuesday, Indiana Democrats greeted Braun at a campaign event in Mishawaka waving Chinese flags. Party spokesman Michael Feldman criticized Braun in a press release for “relying on Chinese auto parts instead of Indiana manufacturers who have suffered at his expense.”
“He has an extensive record of having an entire line of Chinese-made products,” Donnelly said in an interview. “He’s been involved very significantly in those things.”
Braun has said he has no control over the origin of the products he distributes because he’s just reselling them, after all. But on Friday, The Associated Press reported that multiple products sold under an auto parts brand that Braun personally owns are stamped with “Made In China.”
The Braun campaign, in a statement, insisted Donnelly was the real outsourcer in the race.
“Despite bad trade deals that have sent jobs overseas for years, Mike Braun has built a business that’s been creating high-paying jobs only in America for nearly 40 years,” spokesman Josh Kelley said. “While Senator Donnelly’s company sent Hoosier jobs to Mexico, Mike has only created jobs here in America.”
The accusation against Donnelly stems from his stock holdings in a family business that had a factory in Mexico. Donnelly said he sold it last year shortly after an AP story outlined his holdings.
“It was a company that I had not worked at in 20 years,” he said. “I had a little bit of stock as a family member and when the subject came up I said look the clearest thing to do is to just sell the stock.”
Donnelly said Braun is focused on his past stock ownership because he’s afraid to fight over health care and other domestic policies. “It’s what a desperate candidate does when they have nothing else to talk about.”
Braun, who self-funded his primary victory over GOP Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer with the fortune he made as the president and CEO of Meyer Distributing, has aggressively defended his company’s reputation. The first television ad he released after winning the primary wasn’t an attack on Donnelly ― instead, it was a glossy spot defending Meyer’s reputation from Democratic attacks, boasting it pays twice the minimum wage and provides health coverage for its employees.
The Senate contest won’t turn solely on the outsourcing question. To win in red-tinted Indiana, Donnelly will need to prove his bipartisan bona fides on a host of issues, especially since he’s taken a hard line against the GOP tax cut and Obamacare repeal plans. He’s started with immigration. Donnelly said he worked with a bipartisan group of senators that the president had tasked with finding an immigration compromise. He made news this week when he mentioned his willingness to support a border wall, but he’s supported increased more border security before.
“I voted for wall funding on three separate occasions,” he said.
Trump has already campaigned once for Braun, coming to the state just days after his primary victory. Republicans hope the president makes repeated visits. Donnelly has largely avoided criticizing the president, instead aiming his attacks at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It’s a way for Donnelly to avoid alienating Trump voters in a state the president won by 19 percentage points in 2016. (Donnelly is one of 10 Senate Democrats running for re-election in a state Trump won.)
The Braun-Donnelly battle is playing out against the backdrop of one of the only populist things Trump has ever done.
When Carrier announced it would shutter its Indianapolis furnace plant in 2016, and lay off more than 1,400 employees, Trump seized on the news as an example of how free trade screws American workers. He vowed that if he won the presidency, American companies would no longer shift production to countries with cheaper workers.
And then Trump actually did something about it, bullying the company at rallies and then helping to strike a deal between Carrier and the state government that would keep the factory in operation in exchange for some tax credits. (That Carrier’s parent company, United Technologies, gets a lot of federal contracts, might also have had something to do with it.)
While Trump’s move to save the Carrier jobs ― which happened before he was sworn into office ― was one of the high points of his presidency, Braun’s campaign hasn’t shown interest in reminding Hoosiers that the leader of the Republican Party saved hundreds of good-paying factory jobs.
Donnelly’s campaign has repeatedly pointed out that as a state representative in 2016, Braun voted against a measure that would retract tax breaks given to businesses that move their operations out of state.
Robert James, who succeeded Jones as president of the 1999 this year, said the union will endorse Donnelly and that the Braun campaign has never reached out. Many of the union’s rank-and-file members are Republicans.
And even despite Trump’s intervention, several hundred Carrier workers still got laid off. Jones said he believed Donnelly managed to postpone some of the layoffs, which had been scheduled for last December, until after Christmas. The company didn’t respond when HuffPost asked if that was true.
Trump didn’t make the same effort for another Indianapolis factory. Rexnord relocated its nearby ball-bearings plant to Mexico, laying off 300 workers and offering a counterexample to the supposed power of Trump’s twitter account. The Local 1999 represents workers at both Rexnord and Carrier, as well as several other factories.
Donnelly repeatedly asked Rexnord to reconsider, staging press conferences about the plight of its workers. And he visited the White House several times, unsuccessfully pushing Trump on legislation that would punish federal contractors that move jobs abroad.
John Feltner is a Trump voter who got laid off from Rexnord. The 49-year-old has found a new job doing building maintenance at a hospital. He still likes Trump and doesn’t like that Donnelly voted against the Republican tax bill. He doesn’t like that Donnelly seems uncommitted on Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee.
But he got to know Donnelly during the factory fights and said the senator even wrote him a job recommendation. Feltner didn’t get that job, but Donnelly will probably get his vote.
“I still like Joe,” he said.