One of the most talked-about — and arguably successful — TV ads of the 2018 midterm elections depicted Republican Mike Braun, now Indiana’s junior senator, toting life-size cardboard cutouts of his two GOP Senate primary opponents, Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita. In the cutouts, both House members are wearing navy suits, white shirts and red ties: It’s what they wore during the first televised debate of the campaign, at which Braun appeared in a blue shirt wearing neither coat nor tie. In the ad, several voters say they can’t tell Messer and Rokita apart and Braun, posing with the two cardboard candidates, asks the television audience, “Can you pick out the businessman in this lineup?” In a primary in which all three contenders ran as avid supporters of President Donald Trump, the ploy underscored Braun’s contention that he most closely reflected the outsider profile of the businessman in the White House.
Braun won the nomination and, in November, ousted one-term Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in a traditionally Republican state trending increasingly red — as he derided the low-profile incumbent with Trumpian nicknames like “Sleepin’ Joe” and “Mexico Joe.” The latter was a reference to Donnelly having invested in a company run by his brother that created jobs in Mexico. Like Trump, Braun is not only a businessman, but a wealthy one: His holdings, pegged at between $35 million and $96 million in a disclosure form, place him among the five wealthiest senators. Most of Braun’s wealth is from an auto-parts distribution firm he expanded over three decades. But, with 6,000 acres of land — mostly timber stands — spread over nine Indiana counties, Braun is among the state’s largest private landowners. And, also like Trump, Braun didn’t hesitate to fund his own campaign. He poured nearly $11.6 million in personal loans into his campaign, more than half of that during the primary — which was key to his overtaking the House members initially considered the front-runners.
But unlike Trump, Braun is considered frugal by family and friends; he scoffs at companies that operate with “extreme overhead and Taj Mahal corporate headquarters.” He worked out of a trailer for years even after his business had become successful. He didn’t buy a new vehicle until he was in his 50s. While Trump has faced multiple bankruptcies, Braun credits thriftiness with helping his business survive two recessions that killed off many competitors. “You live like you are going out of business every day and it makes you healthy,” he told The Indianapolis Star. “He is the most conservative, tightest guy I know,” his wife of 40 years, Maureen Braun, said.
Braun, 65, grew up in the Southern Indiana town of Jasper, where he still lives. After earning his undergraduate degree from Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., he left the state to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School. Returning to Jasper, he sold kitchen cabinets for three years and co-founded Crystal Farms Inc. — now one of the largest turkey operations in the Midwest — before joining his father’s business manufacturing truck bodies for farmers. The enterprise almost failed during the farm crisis of the early 1980s. Braun responded by redirecting the business toward selling truck accessories, later expanding it to include warehousing and shipping. Today, the firm, Meyer Distributing, employs more than 900 workers in 35 states. Before he joined the Senate, Braun’s political experience comprised 10 years on the Jasper School Board and a three-year stint in the Indiana House of Representatives that began in 2015. His interest in the latter post appears to have been piqued by his younger brother, Steve Braun, winning a state legislative seat two years earlier from the Indianapolis suburbs.
Re-elected to the Indiana House in 2016, Mike Braun resigned in November 2017 to focus on his Senate bid. It was several months after Messer and Rokita entered the contest, which would come to be described as one of the nastiest contests of the 2018 midterm elections. Messer and Rokita overlapped at Wabash College and, in the quarter of a century that followed, had seen each other as rivals as they climbed the political ladder: Rokita as Indiana secretary of state before election to Congress and Messer as a member of the state Legislature before moving to Washington, where he became a member of the congressional leadership as chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. Their entry into the Senate race was preceded by months of jockeying in the competition to take on Donnelly — elected six years earlier largely because of self-inflicted wounds by his Republican opponent and viewed by many GOP strategists as the most vulnerable Senate Democrat up for election in 2018.
In the end, Braun’s primary victory was attributable to both his wealth, which allowed him to air TV ads before Messer and Rokita did, and the common political dynamic of front-running candidates damaging each other so badly that a third contender wins. Rokita made issues of Messer moving his family out of Indiana and to a home in the Washington suburbs and a $240,000 annual contract for part-time legal work paid to Messer’s wife by an Indianapolis suburb. Messer accused Rokita of “spreading lies and half-truths,” prompting a memo from the Rokita camp labeling Messer “unhinged” and a “ticking time bomb.” They tried to outdo each other in fealty to Trump: A Rokita TV ad showed him in a “Make America Great Again” hat, while Messer trumpeted efforts to nominate the president for a Nobel Peace Prize for having brought North Korea to the negotiating table. But Rokita was quick to point to 2016 comments by Messer suggesting Trump was not up to the job of being president, while Messer’s camp highlighted Rokita calling Trump “vulgar if not profane” in a published interview at the time.
Messer and Rokita focused on attacking each other even as Braun gained ground, albeit Braun had found himself criticized for voting in Democratic primaries until 2012 — two years before his election to the Indiana House as a Republican. Braun defended himself as a lifelong Republican while saying that, given longtime Democratic dominance in some Southern Indiana counties, he and other conservatives had little choice but to vote in Democratic primaries if they wanted a say in local government. For his part, Braun criticized Messer and Rokita as “career politicians” and lawyers “who never really practiced.” In his final TV ad before the May primary, Braun sought to reinforce his shared background with Trump as businessman and political outsider, saying he was running because “President Trump paved the way.” Braun won the primary with 41 percent of the vote, while Rokita and Messer finished with 30 percent and 29 percent, respectively.
In Donnelly, Braun faced a general election opponent widely labeled an “accidental senator.” A New York native who earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Donnelly was elected in 2006 to represent a House district including that area. In 2011, after the district was redrawn, Donnelly ran for the Senate. He started out as a long shot, but the seat became in play after tea party-backed state Treasurer Richard Mourdock toppled six-term Sen. Richard Lugar in the Republican primary. While the then-80-year-old Lugar’s primary defeat was attributed to having lost touch with GOP voters, Mourdock did himself in during the general election with incendiary comments. Asked about abortions in cases of rape, Mourdock said: “Life is that gift from God. And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” Donnelly — an abortion rights opponent who said the procedure should be permitted in cases of rape and incest — capitalized on Mourdock’s missteps, winning by 50%-44%.
In the Senate, Donnelly kept a low profile, crafting a centrist voting record and focusing on issues — like improving care for veterans and combating opioid addiction — that didn’t invite sharp partisan divisions. Halfway through his term, the Lugar Center — a Washington-based think tank founded by Lugar — issued a “bipartisan index” that found Donnelly to be fourth-most bipartisan senator to serve during the previous two decades. But, unlike several of his Democratic colleagues from red states — who had developed distinct resumes and personas to transcend partisan disadvantages — Donnelly’s efforts at bipartisanship placed him on a political tightrope.
Donnelly was among only three Senate Democrats who, early in the Trump administration, voted to confirm Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch — angering his base. Later in 2017, when he came under intense pressure to support Republicans’ tax cut bill, there were suggestions he could invite a primary challenge by doing so. Donnelly ultimately voted against the measure, calling it a “giveaway to Wall Street and other big money interests.” His decision triggered attacks from Trump. Donnelly — whose pro-Trump voting score was the third highest among Senate Democrats, according to ratings by FiveThirtyEight — sought to inoculate himself from Republican voters’ anger by emphasizing areas where he agreed with the president. In one ad, he highlighted his support of Trump’s proposed southern border wall. Another ad showed the president praising Donnelly during a bill signing ceremony for “right to try” legislation he had sponsored that enabled patients with terminal illnesses to obtain unapproved drugs that might save their lives.
For a time, it appeared Donnelly might pull off this delicate balancing act: Polls at the outset of the fall election season showed him a few points ahead of Braun. And some within the GOP fretted about the tempo of the Braun campaign as Donnelly campaigned hard throughout the state. But Braun kept pumping in his own money — $2.7 million in loans just in the final month of the campaign — as he campaigned on a platform in lockstep with Trump, including support of the border wall and repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which Donnelly supported. On international trade — of key significance in a state in which both agriculture and nonfarm manufacturing play leading economic roles — Braun had expressed opposition to tariffs during the primary campaign. But he later modified his position to put himself more in line with Trump’s aggressive use of tariffs, calling concerns about them overdramatized — as Donnelly decried their negative effects on the state’s economy. Responding to the “Mexico Joe” taunts, a Donnelly ad went after Braun’s business for selling Chinese-made auto parts. “I voted against every bad trade deal that hurts Hoosiers,” Donnelly was quoted as saying by Bloomberg News. “Mike Braun has used those same trade deals to outsource Hoosier jobs to China.”
Braun steered clear of the media after debates, and, in contrast to Mourdock six years earlier, avoided mistakes. But it was the furor over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court in the closing weeks of the campaign that may have sealed the outcome. As the nomination was headed to the Senate floor, Donnelly was among the last senators to tip his hand — saying he had “deep reservations” about putting Trump’s nominee on the high court, following allegations by Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they both were in high school. In the view of independent observers, it energized the Republican base while nationalizing the Senate contest in a state Trump had carried by 19 points. Braun appeared to share this view, telling The New York Times, “The thing that took the whole energy level up was Judge Kavanaugh … It boosted all races across the country and especially here, measurably so.”
Trump visited the state three times during the final two weeks of the campaign, and, by the end, the contest ranked third among 2018 Senate races in independent expenditure funding — with $41 million going to prop up Donnelly and $28 million to boost Braun. On Election Day, Braun won, 51%-45%; Donnelly captured just eight counties, compared to 27 in 2012. And he appeared to have been whipsawed between Republicans unhappy over his opposition to Kavanaugh and Democrats turned off by his efforts to woo Trump voters. “It looks like Joe Donnelly’s attempt to run to the middle turned off his base in a way that was detrimental to him,” Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, told The Indianapolis Star. “Donnelly beat up on the far left quite a bit, and there were voters across the state who were turned off by that and did not want to hold their noses and go out and vote for him.”
Braun pledged during the campaign to refuse a pension and serve no more than two terms before returning to the woods around Jasper — where he likes to hunt rabbits, doves and quail. His passion is said to be an annual quest for valuable morel mushrooms, which appear briefly each spring. As for his willingness to dig deep into his pocket in his hunt for a Senate seat — despite his frugal nature— Braun told the Star, “That’s how big a deal I think it is that if guys like me don’t step in, across the spectrum, that we’re going to keep going down the trail where we were headed before Trump came along.” — The Almanac of American Politics