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
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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.

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