Former Republican state representative Mike Braun won a surprisingly easy victory Tuesday night in Indiana’s U.S. Senate primary, besting two outgoing congressmen in what was repeatedly described as one of the nastiest races in the country.
Braun will face incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly, who was unopposed in the Democratic primary.
Braun had 41 percent of the vote with more than 75 percent of the state's precincts reporting, while U.S. Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer were almost in a tie with about 29 percent of the vote each.
"When it comes to Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, it was a difficult decision for many because we were all good conservatives," Braun told his supporters. "It can get intense; it can get harsh. I hope they will join [us] just like I would with them. Our common goal all along was to retire Joe Donnelly."
But the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee issued a statement saying Braun "emerges tonight badly damaged from one of the most divisive primaries in the country, where the candidates focused more on petty political attacks than on Hoosiers."
Caleb Bowlin of Delphi traveled to Whitestown for Braun’s campaign party after staying in touch with the team throughout the race. He voted for Braun because he’s a “Washington outsider just like Trump.”
“Now it’s time to get Donelley and send him home,” Bowlin said. “Braun is going to mop the floor with him. I don’t even think it will be a race.”
Braun, who has almost entirely self-funded his campaign and billed himself as the political outsider, had spent about $4.5 million and had about $1.4 million cash on hand, as of April 18—the latest reporting deadline to the Federal Election Commission—while Donnelly had spent $3.7 million and had nearly $6.2 million cash on hand.
Braun, who has already loaned himself nearly $6 million, could continue to self-fund his campaign.
State Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, supported Rokita in the primary and said the big difference in the campaigns was Braun's ability to spend millions of dollars more than his opponents.
"Todd worked very hard. They did everything they could do," Houchin said. "But when you’re outspent to that degree, money does buy a lot of advertisements, a lot of mail and thats just very very tough to compete against.”
Because the race as seen as one of the tightest in the country, outside money is expected to come pouring into the race on both sides as Republicans try to keep control of the Senate and Democrats try to wrest it away.
National politicians are also expected to get involved. President Donald Trump is scheduled to visit Elkhart on Thursday and talk about the economy and the recent tax cuts, but many believe he will also try to unify Indiana Republicans around the GOP candidate for Senate.
The primary campaign was brutal for all three candidates—who mostly agreed on key GOP issues such as immigration, gun control and abortion and desperately tried to portray themselves as the most align with Trump.
But they also went negative early and often. In one ad, Braun carried around cardboard cutouts of his opponents.
According to data from the Wesleyan Media Project at Wesleyan University, nearly 35,000 ads have already aired in the Senate race in Indiana. More than 20,000 of those ads were from the GOP candidates’ campaigns.
Rokita and Messer repeatedly painted Braun as a “lifelong Democrat” because he regularly voted in Democratic primary elections until 2012. But Braun has tried to justify his record by saying he wanted to have a voice in local races in Jasper, which were heavily Democratic at the time.
Braun also took fire for his business experience. He owns Jasper-based Meyer Distributing and Meyer Logistics, and he often touts his successful record.
But an AP analysis found the auto parts distributing company has a history of importing goods from other countries and accepting government subsidies—two practices Braun has criticized. Braun also is one of the state’s largest timber land owners, and while he was a state lawmaker, he pushed for legislation that reduced taxes and regulations on the industry.
Braun, 64, grew up in Jasper and received his bachelor’s degree from Wabash College. He received his master’s degree from Harvard Business School.
He served as a state representative from 2014 until 2017, when he resigned to run for U.S. Senate.
During the campaign, Braun emphasized his outsider status through his TV ads that poked fun at the similarities between Messer and Rokita and by never wearing a suit and tie to the debates.
"I can't wait to take the record of what we've done in our hometown, the time I've spent in the Statehouse and get those values and those ideas out there," Braun said during his victory speech. "Government is not the solution."
Rokita took the stage at his campaign party at about 8:40 p.m. Tuesday to applause from supporters.
“Thank you for putting your faith and trust in us,” Rokita said. “The honor and responsibility will never be forgotten.”
Rokita congratulated Braun on winning the primary race, but encouraged him to fight for the seat in the fall race against Donnelly, rather than trying to buy the seat—implying that Braun bought the primary race.
“The result tonight was different than we had hoped but I will continue to fight for you,” Rokita said.