Senate Democrats' blockade of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch ran into a hiccup on Sunday, when the Democratic senator from Indiana said he'll vote for Gorsuch — and, more importantly, will vote with Republicans to break a Democratic filibuster of the nominee. This puts him at odds with the vast majority of Democrats in the Senate, who aren't willing to let Gorsuch be seated without a fight. So, who is Sen. Joe Donnelly, and why is he voting with Republicans?
Donnelly is a first-term senator from Indiana who previously served three terms in the House of Representatives. During his time in the House, he was a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a bloc of moderate and conservative Democrats who sometimes crossed party lines to vote with Republicans. And that's probably the most important thing to know about Donnelly at this point in time: As far as Democrats go, he's pretty darn conservative.
For instance, Donnelly is generally pro-life, and has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association. In 2015, he voted to defund Planned Parenthood, saying that he didn't think the group should receive reimbursements for donating aborted fetal tissue to medical issue. After Planned Parenthood ended that policy, Donnelly changed his position and voted to continue funding the organization. He also supported the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for the richest Americans.
However, Donnelly does have some progressive positions. He supports the Affordable Care Act, marriage equality and Social Security benefits for same-sex couples. The Human Rights Campaign gave him an 80 percent score in 2016 — a moderately positive rating. While he has a mixed record on environmental issues, he's largely been in favor of efforts to fight climate change. In 2016, GovTrack ranked him as the most moderate member of the Senate.
Some furious liberal activists have called for Donnelly to be primaried as punishment for his support of Gorsuch (and, more generally, his conservative policy positions). But Democrats are extremely lucky to hold a Senate seat from Indiana to begin with, given how conservative the state is. Donnelly's conservative tilt is likely the only reason he's been able to win election in a blood-red state like Indiana; he barely squeaked by to reelection during his last House race, and was only able to win in 2012 when a Libertarian challenger split the conservative vote in the state.
Replacing Donnelly's name on the ticket with that of a more liberal Democrat would almost certainly result in Republicans gaining a seat in the Senate, and that would not help the left. Although Donnelly can't be counted on to vote with Democrats on every vote, he'll certainly do so more often than Republican in Indiana would. The same goes for Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Heidi Heidkamp of North Dakota, the other two Democrats who've said they won't filibuster Gorsuch.
As far as the Gorsuch filibuster goes, Donnelly probably won't be the deciding vote. Republicans need to win over eight Democrats in order to overcome a filibuster, but as of this writing, Donnelly is one of only three. It's very unlikely that five more Democrats will cross sides, so Donnelly's support of Gorsuch, while frustrating to the left, isn't likely to have a very substantive impact on anything.