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July 7, 2013

HAYDEN: Donnelly staying in touch with Hoosiers

INDIANAPOLIS — On a recent night, I was with two of my favorite family members in a hospitality suite at the sold-out Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., enjoying the Rolling Stones in their final concert of their 50 & Counting North American tour.

What was Joe Donnelly, the junior senator from Indiana, doing that evening? Calling it an early night after microwaving himself a frozen Lean Cuisine dinner. He’d flown in from Indiana that morning, after his routine weekly trip back to his home state.

The night before that, Donnelly was in the small Indiana town of La Paz, population of 561, greeting about 75 people as they worked their way through the buffet line at the annual Marshall County Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. As he shook hands with Democrat loyalists, they bended his ear about Obamacare, the stalled farm bill, and immigration reform.

Earlier this week, Donnelly launched his fifth state tour since taking office in January. Typical of his other tours, he crisscrossed the state, hosting meetings at a bakery, a bar and grill, an elementary school, and the office of an IHOP restaurants’ franchise owner.

Those are the kind of places where Donnelly spends a lot of time on his frequent trips back home. His staff has come to expect a flood of phone calls and emails when they come to work on Monday mornings; that’s because their boss often tells people he meets: If you need something, call my office.

Those calls, emails, and letters comes in the “tens of thousands” according to his press staff. That doesn’t include the constituent services caseload — which are specific requests from people back home who need help resolving a problem with a federal agency. His staff has about 900 cases they’ve closed or are on working on.

Donnelly is not up for re-election until 2018, so you’d think he could take a bit of a break. But he’s also a Democrat in a Republican state who wasn’t supposed to win, which is why if you Google his name, you may see the words “the accidental Senator” in news stories about him.

More than $51 million was spent on the race for the Senate seat he now holds. His opponent, conservative Republican Richard Mourdock, turned the race unexpectedly competitive with a remark about abortion, rape, and God during a debate in the last weeks of the campaign.

It was Mourdock who upset conventional wisdom when he beat longtime U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar in the May primary, capitalizing on the perception that Lugar, a revered elder statesman on the global stage, had lost touch with common Hoosiers. Unlike Mourdock, who traveled the state attending the local Lincoln Day fund-raising dinners that are patronized by GOP loyalists, Lugar was an infrequent visitor to Indiana as his tenure went on.

In Donnelly’s spacious Senate office, on the 7th floor of the Hart Office Building, which is just down the street from the majestic Capitol Building, there’s a sign perched prominently on a bookcase shelf that reads: Hoosier Common Sense.

Donnelly said it’s a reminder of home and what he calls the “wisdom” in Indiana that seems missing in Washington, D.C. But it’s also a reminder that Hoosiers still like their senators to have the common touch.

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