Against the Grain

Indiana’s Lesson for Republicans

Mike Braun started out as the underdog. But by casting himself as a populist outsider and using tricks from Trump’s playbook, he’s now the GOP front-runner to take on Sen. Joe Donnelly.

A Braun for Senate campaign ad.
Mike Braun for Indiana
Josh Kraushaar
Add to Briefcase
Josh Kraushaar
April 22, 2018, 6 a.m.

Indiana’s Senate primary on May 8 is offering an instructive lesson on the Republican Party’s future—with or without President Trump. The emerging GOP front-runner in the conservative-minded state, businessman and state legislator Mike Braun, is running as a political outsider who’s a critic of free-trade agreements and an ardent opponent of illegal immigration. He ties himself to Trump on the campaign trail, but his campaign ads focus mostly on the issues animating the president’s coalition.

Republican expectations have started to tilt in Braun’s favor: One public poll released last week shows Braun has pulled ahead of Todd Rokita and Luke Messer, the two congressmen he’s running against—a finding Braun’s own campaign has seen in its internal tracking. His rivals have faced their share of political pitfalls lately: Messer has been facing criticism for concealing two DUIs he received when he was in his 20s, while Rokita has taken friendly fire from Trump’s reelection campaign for misleading voters that his campaign has the administration’s backing. Neither candidate has raised the type of money expected from members of Congress looking for a promotion.

The two congressmen are trying to battle criticisms that they’re part of the dreaded party establishment: Rokita, first elected to statewide office in his early 30s, was an early Marco Rubio supporter—even though he now pledges allegiance to Trump. Messer moved to Northern Virginia after getting elected to Congress; one of his TV ads shows a photo of his son playing youth basketball for a team in the tony Washington suburb of McLean. Even support from Vice President Mike Pence’s brother, Greg, hasn’t done much to help Messer out.

Braun, meanwhile, is cheekily portraying himself as a mini-Trump of sorts: successful CEO of a national auto-parts distributor who is largely self-funding his campaign to take on the GOP establishment. His campaign loves drawing attention to a picture of his two rivals at a debate wearing near-identical dark suits and red ties, while Braun casually sports a wrinkled blue shirt without a tie. He’s now dubbing his two opponents the “Swamp Brothers”—a narrative he drives home in his latest television ad. Perception matters in politics, and Braun’s playing the outsider role to a tee.

Braun still has some hurdles to overcome: Rokita is hitting him for voting in past Democratic primaries, while a pro-Messer super PAC is up with an ad targeting his vote for a tax hike in the state legislature. But if Trump’s own campaign experience offered any lessons, it’s that conservative voters are willing to overlook past Democratic connections and heterodox positions —as long as you’re selling yourself as a swamp-draining populist in the moment.

If Braun can parlay his wealth and business record to the nomination, he’ll be proving a central maxim of the Republican Party dating to the tea-party era: Experience is a liability. Trump was an extreme continuation of the trends animating the GOP throughout Obama’s presidency, where inexperienced outsiders toppled entrenched politicians with stunning regularity. As veteran GOP strategist Alex Castellanos put it: “To renew ourselves, Republicans must always be agents of change; outsiders on the side of the people and not the establishment that requires transformation.”

The GOP nominee will face Sen. Joe Donnelly, a genial moderate who is as unlike Trump as it gets in Washington. Donnelly, who became senator in 2012 thanks to Republican infighting, tends to avoid the national spotlight and casts himself as a bipartisan problem solver in his debut television ad. GOP tracking polls have shown him with crossover appeal among Republicans, a phenomenon they expect will change with a barrage of attack ads. (The GOP’s main line of attack is that a Donnelly family business used Mexican labor, undermining the senator’s criticism of free-trade agreements.)

If Braun wins, he’ll test whether the Trump coalition can hold in a state that Trump carried comfortably. If he can come out of nowhere to win a primary and oust a sitting Democratic senator despite the national tumult, he’ll be outlining the GOP’s future formula for success. But if Donnelly wins a second term, against early odds, it will demonstrate the limitations of Trumpian politics in the vice president’s own home state.

What We're Following See More »
SAYS HIS DEATH STEMMED FROM A FISTFIGHT
Saudis Admit Khashoggi Killed in Embassy
11 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Saudi Arabia said Saturday that Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist who disappeared more than two weeks ago, had died after an argument and fistfight with unidentified men inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Eighteen men have been arrested and are being investigated in the case, Saudi state-run media reported without identifying any of them. State media also reported that Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, and other high-ranking intelligence officials had been dismissed."

Source:
ROGER STONE IN THE CROSSHAIRS?
Mueller Looking into Ties Between WikiLeaks, Conservative Groups
11 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is scrutinizing how a collection of activists and pundits intersected with WikiLeaks, the website that U.S. officials say was the primary conduit for publishing materials stolen by Russia, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Mueller’s team has recently questioned witnesses about the activities of longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone, including his contacts with WikiLeaks, and has obtained telephone records, according to the people familiar with the matter."

Source:
PROBING COLLUSION AND OBSTRUCTION
Mueller To Release Key Findings After Midterms
11 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to issue findings on core aspects of his Russia probe soon after the November midterm elections ... Specifically, Mueller is close to rendering judgment on two of the most explosive aspects of his inquiry: whether there were clear incidents of collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, and whether the president took any actions that constitute obstruction of justice." Mueller has faced pressure to wrap up the investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, said an official, who would receive the results of the investigation and have "some discretion in deciding what is relayed to Congress and what is publicly released," if he remains at his post.

Source:
PASSED ON SO-CALLED "SAR" REPORTS
FinCen Official Charged with Leaking Info on Manafort, Gates
11 hours ago
THE DETAILS
"A senior official working for the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has been charged with leaking confidential financial reports on former Trump campaign advisers Paul Manafort, Richard Gates and others to a media outlet. Prosecutors say that Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a senior adviser to FinCEN, photographed what are called suspicious activity reports, or SARs, and other sensitive government files and sent them to an unnamed reporter, in violation of U.S. law."
Source:
FIRST CHARGE FOR MIDTERMS
DOJ Charges Russian For Meddling In 2018 Midterms
11 hours ago
THE LATEST

"The Justice Department on Friday charged a Russian woman for her alleged role in a conspiracy to interfere with the 2018 U.S. election, marking the first criminal case prosecutors have brought against a foreign national for interfering in the upcoming midterms. Elena Khusyaynova, 44, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Prosecutors said she managed the finances of 'Project Lakhta,' a foreign influence operation they said was designed 'to sow discord in the U.S. political system' by pushing arguments and misinformation online about a host of divisive political issues, including immigration, the Confederate flag, gun control and the National Football League national-anthem protests."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login