After a bruising and expensive race, Indiana’s Mike Braun, the outsider candidate, has won the Republican Senate primary, beating out Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer.
He will face off against Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly this November.
For months, the three Republicans had been in a tight contest to out-Trump one another. Braun, a business executive and former state lawmaker who was largely self-funded, funneled about $4.5 million into the race, more than his opponents. Altogether, the three candidates spent more than $9 million in one of the most expensive and negative primaries this year, for the chance to run against Donnelly.
But Donnelly is also a moderate, anti-abortion Democrat without a primary challenger, and he remains relatively popular in the state, with a net approval rating of 14 points. Despite coming into office in a major upset (after his opponent said pregnancy from rape is a “gift from God”), he’s selling himself as among the most bipartisan senators in Congress.
Democrats are hoping the nasty Republican primary will play in their favor and mitigate Donnelly’s biggest political disadvantage in the state: having a “D” next to his name. But in a deep-red state Trump won by 19 points, Braun could mount a formidable challenge.
Braun ran as the outsider
At 64 years old, Braun, a former state lawmaker and businessman, ran an insurgent campaign as an outsider.
He was perhaps the most distinguishable candidate, running against two House representatives. It was a message he drove home with an ad of two eerily similar-looking cardboard cutouts of Rokita and Messer. By virtue of not being in Washington, he was able to more credibly deride Republicans in Congress and paint himself as a political outsider.
But without much name recognition in the state, Braun’s largely self-funded campaign spent more than $4 million in the primary — millions more than his opponents. It helped that his business has made him personally very wealthy; his assets are valued between $37 million and $95 million.
A Harvard Business School grad, Braun joined his father’s business manufacturing farm truck bodies, eventually growing the business, Meyer Distributing, to include trucking accessories and shipping and warehousing. His career in politics is much shorter. He’s served on a local school board for a decade and in 2015 was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives, where he served three years.
As IndyStar’s Robert King reported, Indiana state Democrats regarded Braun as more “open-minded” than some other Republican colleagues. King writes:
His conservative philosophies were clear, but some of his Democratic colleagues came to regard him as open-minded and a good listener, a reasonable man. Braun even garnered the respect of environmentalists — not a natural fit for a Republican in the Statehouse — because he saw conservation of the forests as part of being a conservative.
That version of Braun, however, was largely lost in the grueling Trump-off of a Republican primary, where he tried to tie himself closely to the president. He’s for building Trump’s border wall and defunding sanctuary cities, wants to repeal Obamacare, and is in favor of the Republican tax bill.
Nevertheless, his time in the Indiana statehouse has come under fire. Rokita and Messer attacked Braun for having voted in favor of road funding legislation that increased the state’s gas tax by 10 cents per gallon.
Braun will be up against one of the most vulnerable Democrats this November
In November, Braun will run against Donnelly, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the 2018 midterm cycle.
Six years ago, Donnelly pulled off a major upset, defeating Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock, who a month before the election said, “When life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that’s something God intended to happen.”
At the time, the Republican’s loss in the state was largely seen as the result of a bitter GOP primary that moved the party too far to the right. Mourdock had successfully challenged moderate Republican and longtime US Sen. Dick Lugar from the right, turning his 36-year Senate career into a political liability — and Donnelly managed to paint Mourdock as an “extremist,” ultimately winning the election. (It helped that Donnelly was also anti-abortion.)
But a lot has changed since 2012. Indiana is firmly a Trump state. It will be an uphill battle for Donnelly, who will not only have to win the support of all Democrats in the state but also draw in moderate Republicans and independent voters.
Donnelly has largely done his part to paint himself as a bipartisan player in the Senate. He’s one of two anti-abortion Democrats in the Senate. He voted for Trump’s Cabinet nominees early on, breaking with the party to endorse conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. He’s supported Trump’s action on trade, and last September he traveled with Trump on Air Force One from Washington, DC, to Indiana for the president’s speech on tax reform. He ultimately didn’t vote for the GOP tax plan, saying Trump broke his promise to help the middle class, which conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity are attacking him for.
In most other ways, particularly when it comes to Trump’s antics, he’s kept a relatively low profile. “He has been trying to stay out of things as much of possible,” Indiana University political scientist Chera LaForge observed. But there’s no question that Donnelly’s biggest liability is that he’s a Democrat.
Even so, state Democrats say the mudslinging that went on in the Republican primary will benefit Donnelly.
“This race has slowly but surely descended into Dante’s Inferno,” John Hammond III, a Republican National Committee member, told the Associated Press. “It will provide the Democrats an awful lot of free opposition research.”
Braun won tonight, but he didn’t come out unscathed.