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Trump could continue to be big focus in Braun vs. Donnelly race for Senate

May 9, 2018

During the months of the bitter GOP primary campaign, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike Braun often touted his similarities to President Donald Trump.

Braun, a former state lawmaker and owner of Jasper-based Meyer Distributing and Meyer Logistics, billed himself as the political outsider compared with his GOP primary opponents, U.S. Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita.

Braun handily defeated Rokita and Messer in Tuesday’s primary in what was expected to be a closer race and now must decide whether to continue with his Trump talking points.

Like Trump, Braun points to his business experience. And, also like Trump, Braun wants to drain what he calls a Washington, D.C., swamp filled with career politicians. Braun regularly talks about how much he agrees with everything Trump has been doing since he became president.

“President Trump is the inspiration for why I ran,” Braun said at an April 30 debate. “... What I’ve seen so far, I’m going to agree with him on most things.”

But political experts say that Trump-centered strategy might not be the best move now that Braun has won the primary race and will face Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in the fall election.

“I might be a little worried about placing my candidacy on the back of a president whose own position can shift an awful lot between now and November,” said Leslie Lenkowsky, Indiana University professor emeritus of public affairs.

Lenkowsky said several issues—including trade deals, a potential meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the results of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation—have the potential to help and hurt Republican candidates.

Trade, in particular, is a sensitive topic in Indiana, where manufacturing and agriculture remain two of the biggest industries and those most affected by a trade war.

“There’s a lot of volatility in trade that could cut either way in Indiana,” Lenkowsky said.

But Chera LaForge, an assistant political science professor at Indiana University East, said Trump is still “relatively popular” in Indiana compared with his approval ratings nationwide.

LaForge said it’s possible Braun could tone down some of the pro-Trump rhetoric. But she said that message is still appealing to some voters. Trump won Indiana by about 19 points in the 2016 election.

Braun’s relatively brief stint in politics could also be a positive or negative trait on the campaign trail, depending on the voter. Braun served as a state representative from 2014 until 2017, when he resigned to run for U.S. Senate. Braun’s campaign sees it as a selling point, though.

He told reporters at his election party Tuesday night that his general election campaign will carry the same message as it did in the primary—that he’s an outsider.

“Do you want somebody who spent 12 years in politics serving?” he asked, saying Donnelly has little to show for all that time. “Or do you want a guy that’s addressed issues like health care, who’s been involved in improving infrastructure, is a problem solver and has done something in the real world? I think that message is going to resonate in the fall.”

But Donnelly pointed out in a press briefing Wednesday morning that Braun was elected to two terms as a state representative. Braun resigned from the seat last year to focus on his Senate campaign.

“You can say anything you want, but there’s actual facts, and those are important,” Donnelly said. 

Campaign funding could be a Braun advantage, although Donnelly has far more cash in his campaign coffers going into the general election.

As of April 18, Braun had raised nearly $6 million, but a majority of it—$5.4 million—came from his own wallet, and he could continue to self-fund through the general election. He had $1.4 million cash on hand, as of April 18.

Rokita suggested on Tuesday night that Braun won the primary due to the amount of money he was able to spend and said he hopes Braun will fight for the seat in the fall. “We need to beat Joe Donnelly,” Rokita said.

Outside money could come rushing in for Braun, too. The Republican National Committee was quick to throw its support behind Braun after the race was called Tuesday night.

“Mike Braun is already well positioned to defeat Do-Nothing Democrat Joe Donnelly in November due to the infrastructure built out between the Republican National Committee and the Indiana Republican Party,” Michael Joyce, Indiana communications director for the RNC, said in a statement. “Braun is a conservative leader who will fight for Hoosiers in Washington, work to advance the Trump-Pence agenda, and evict Senator Donnelly from Washington in exactly 184 days.”

Donnelly will rely much more on donations, but he spent the primary season preparing for that. As of April 18, he had raised $9.9 million and spent about $3.7 million. The incumbent had $6.2 million cash on hand, as of April 18.

Outside money is also expected to be in play for Donnelly, as Democrats try to regain control of the U.S. Senate.

Money aside, some political science experts say Donnelly has set himself up well for the general election because he’s walked the line between supporting Democratic values and siding with Trump occasionally.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s tracker, which analyzes how often every member of Congress agrees with the president, Donnelly votes in line with Trump’s position 55 percent of the time.

“He’s been careful to play to the Trump voters, but not overly so,” said Chad Kinsella, an assistant professor of political science at Ball State University. “He’s been walking a tightrope, and I think walking it pretty well.”

And the Donnelly campaign could continue down that path. A statement released Tuesday night from campaign manager Peter Hanscom emphasized Donnelly’s bipartisan work.

“Hoosiers in every corner of the state showed today that they’re fired up to keep Joe Donnelly in the Senate,” Hanscom said in the statement. “It’s clear they want a champion for working families in the Senate—one who’ll work hard and reach across the aisle to protect their access to affordable health care, defend Medicare and Social Security, and keep good-paying jobs here in Indiana.”

Donnelly said Wednesday morning he does occasionally agree with Trump, but a senator should not make decisions solely based on what the president says or wants.

“My job is to be with the president whenever he’s right,” Donnelly said. “But when he’s not, to let him know, 'Here’s a better path. Here’s a better idea.'”

Kinsella said the match-up reminds him of Donnelly’s first U.S. Senate race in 2012 against Republican Richard Mourdock, who many believe lost the race in part due to his extreme comments on abortion during a debate.

Braun “doesn’t seem as polished, and he could make one of those gaffes,” Kinsella said.

And there’s always one factor sitting senators have in their favor—incumbency. Despite the heavy advertising he’s invested in, Braun’s name ID is probably not as great as Donnelly’s, LaForge said.

An Indiana senator hasn't lost a re-election bid since 1980, when Democratic incumbent Birch Bayh lost to Republican Dan Quayle, according to Capitol & Washington, a website documenting Indiana political history. And the last time an incumbent lost this specific Indiana Senate seat was in 1976, when Republican Richard Lugar defeated Democratic incumbent R. Vance Hartke.

Since 1914, Indiana’s sitting senators have lost only seven of 27 re-election efforts, according to Capitol & Washington.

“Incumbency is a huge advantage, so I think that will help,” Kinsella said. “The odds are in your favor, and the money goes to you.”

—IBJ reporter Samm Quinn contributed to this report.

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