Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly from Indiana awkwardly touted minority staff members during a debate Tuesday night, seeming to suggest they succeeded despite their race or ethnicity.
“Our state director is Indian-American, but he does an amazing job,” he said. “Our director of all constituent services, she’s African-American, but she does an even more incredible job than you can ever imagine.”
Donnelly is one of the Senate’s most endangered incumbents. He is facing Republican challenger Mike Braun in next week’s midterm election.
His comment Tuesday night came in the context of a question about diversity.
“We want everybody to have a chance in Indiana and in America, and my offices reflect that – both on the campaign side and on the Senate side,” he said as he began his answer.
After highlighting the two staffers, Donnelly continued: “It isn’t their race or their religion, it’s the incredible person that they are. But at the same time, they have to have a chance. They have to have an opportunity, and that’s my responsibility. And I’ve done it in every office I’ve had, and I’ve done it in every campaign I’ve had, because my campaigns and our Senate office should reflect the face of Indiana.”
In a statement Wednesday, Donnelly said he’d used the wrong word.
“I misspoke,” he said. “I meant to say ‘and’ instead of ‘but.’ That would have communicated what I have tried to do my entire life: that I make a habit to seek out and promote people of color for both my campaign and official staff.”
Donnelly’s diversity gaffe was reminiscent of Mitt Romney, then the Republican nominee for president, in 2012 awkwardly touting his efforts to hire women by saying he had “binders full of women.”
Republicans highlighted Donnelly’s use of the word “but” as clips spread rapidly on social media.
“Holy cats. Watch this clip. I can’t believe how terrible this is,” tweeted Josh Holmes, a top political adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Democrats, meanwhile, were more agitated by Donnelly suggesting he was open to Trump’s calls for an end to birthright citizenship. Responding to the possibility that Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham may introduce legislation to end birthright citizenship, Donnelly said, “We have to look at this legislation.”