Rep. Donnelly could be Dems' best bet

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 It's always interesting to talk to politicians who find ways to win elections in those years when their party takes a full-scale drubbing, and when just about everything is stacked against them.

 U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly was perhaps 2010's best example of that.

 While Democrats across Indiana and the nation lost elections big and small, Donnelly emerged with a narrow victory in one of the nation's truest congressional swing districts. Few other Democrats who battled in such competitive districts survived the GOP wave in November. In fact, many Blue Dogs such as Donnelly are now on the outside of Capitol Hill looking in. 

 All of that helps explain why Donnelly is seen by many as the Indiana Democrat with the best chance of staging a successful campaign for statewide office in the coming years, and why the three-term congressman is contemplating a run for either governor or U.S. Senate in 2012.

 I sat down for coffee with Donnelly on Friday at the City Cafe. For an hour, he talked substantively and pragmatically about education, energy policy, the federal deficit, the economy -- and about his Northern Indiana district, which includes South Bend.

"It's a working-class area," he said. "The issues are clear. It's jobs and education. Jobs and education."

 Donnelly attracted a lot of attention last year as he battled and narrowly won re-election against former state Rep. Jackie Walorski. Republicans worked hard to tie him to national Democrats, focusing most squarely on his vote for the new federal health-care law, but Donnelly's long-established connection to his district, and his undeniable status as an independent thinker in D.C., helped him squeak by.

 "My job is to hit the ball up the middle," he said. "To make sure I'm serving everyone. What I try to do is look at issues and say, does this make sense for the people back home?"

 Unlike many Democrats, Donnelly read the political mood early and well last year. He routinely strays from his party and ranks as one of the more conservative Democrats in Washington -- and he made those points clear in eyebrow-raising TV ads that distanced himself from party leaders. He has an Evan Bayh-like voting record, which is exactly what a Democrat will need to win statewide in 2012.

 "The best ideas come from the folks back home," he said. "I believe in sticking close to the knitting." Put another way, he said, that means: "Don't go getting fancy" in Washington.

 When he talks about the need to focus on jobs, Donnelly says appealing things such as, "They are what makes everyone's dreams come true, whether it's about being able to afford a trip to Cedar Point or to buy a new house." About education, he said: "If we don't get this most basic point right, nothing else is going to work."

He strives naturally not only toward the middle but also toward the most effective path, whether it's on energy policy or education reform.

"Let's do it," he said, for instance, when talking about offshore oil drilling. "But let's do it right."

 Donnelly is looking at his political options in part because Republicans, who are in charge of redrawing congressional districts, are expected to make his 2nd District more Republican. But that could have unintended consequences. While new district maps might push Donnelly out of his House district, he might emerge as the strongest statewide candidate Democrats can find.

 And he might be the only one with a chance of keeping Republican Rep. Mike Pence out of the governor's office.

Originally in Indianapolis Star
By Matthew Tully 

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