Of the five leading candidates vying for the Republican nomination in the governor’s race, U.S. Sen. Mike Braun would appear to be the front-runner in several respects.
His position as a U.S. senator earns him regular appearances on CNBC and Fox News and frequent mentions in national news publications, boosting his name recognition. He’s secured endorsements from well-funded conservative political advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity and Club for Growth. And with the backing of former President Donald Trump—the current overwhelming favorite for the Republican presidential nomination—Braun earns the trust of the Republican base.
But for this campaign, he also has the kind of Washington, D.C., experience that could cause some voters to label him as an “insider,” a much different persona than he projected when he ran in 2018 as a political outsider for his first and only term in the U.S. Senate.
Braun, who will turn 70 in March, said he is proud of his time in the Senate. He said his office has helped close over 12,000 constituent cases by acting as a liaison between Hoosiers and federal agencies like the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We had as good a freshman Senate term today [as] you could expect,” Braun told IBJ. “You’re expected to watch, listen, stick around for three terms, maybe three decades, but I’m a big believer in term limits, and would say unequivocally that we need more entrepreneurs and business owners to get into politics, because government’s actually easier than, I think, running a business.”
While no nonpartisan-sponsored polls have been released in the GOP gubernatorial race, a poll conducted for the Braun campaign in late December showed him with a significant lead.
The statewide poll of 1,300 likely GOP voters showed Braun favored by 40% of respondents, ahead of Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch at 13%, former Indiana Secretary of Commerce Brad Chambers at 5%, former Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill at 5% and Fort Wayne businessman Eric Doden at 3%. Thirty percent said they were undecided. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
If Braun wins the Republican nomination, he will face Jennifer McCormick, the former state education superintendent who is running unopposed on the Democratic ticket.
Braun self-funded his 2018 Senate run to the tune of $6 million, but he doesn’t need to dip into his personal fortune this time around. After five years in D.C., Braun has access to a wealthy network of GOP donors and political action committees.
He raised $4.4 million in 2023, more than any other gubernatorial candidate except for the largely self-funded Chambers, who loaned $5 million of his own money to his campaign. Braun reported more than $4 million cash on hand at the end of 2023, and that was before getting a $1 million check from Richard Uihlein, founder of Illinois-based packaging giant Uline and a frequent donor to conservative candidates.
But one of Braun’s strengths could also be a weakness if the political tides begin to turn against Trump, who is facing criminal charges related to allegedly mishandling classified White House documents, to his Manhattan business dealings, to the Jan. 6 insurrection and to his stolen election claims.
A jury recently ordered Trump to pay an $83 million civil penalty to writer E. Jean Carroll in her defamation case against him, though the verdict hasn’t hurt his poll numbers.
If Trump were to be convicted of one of the 91 criminal charges pending against him, the former president’s endorsement could work against Braun, according to some political observers. But it could also solidify support for Trump and political allies such as Braun.
“Braun’s most obvious liability is also his greatest asset: Trump,” said Laura Wilson, professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis. “The endorsement helps Braun with the very loyal Trump supporters and adds credibility to his old ‘outsider’ status.”
Once an outsider
The last time U.S. Sen. Mike Braun ran for elected office, he was firmly a Washington outsider.
Born in Jasper, Braun studied economics at Wabash College before enrolling at Harvard University. After graduating with an MBA, Braun moved back home to southern Indiana.
In 1981, he started working for Meyer Body Inc., a company partially owned by his dad. In 1995, Braun acquired full ownership of the 15-employee company, which he later renamed Meyer Distributing and grew into a nationwide competitor in the logistics business.
That has made him very wealthy. According to his most recent financial disclosure form filed with the U.S. Senate, Braun held assets valued at $8 million to $29 million, including stock in Meyer Distributing.
His first foray into politics came in 2004, when he ran and won a seat on the Greater Jasper Consolidated Schools Board, where his intelligence and business expertise, combined with his easygoing manner, impressed his colleagues.
“He’s the kind of fella who will take the time to talk to anybody, no matter your walk of life,” recalled Greg Eckerle, who served on the school board with Braun for six years. “What I noticed at school board meetings was a high level of intelligence and a quick grasp of complex issues.”
In 2014, Mark Messmer, a Republican from Jasper, decided to leave his seat in the Indiana House of Representatives and run for state Senate. He called Braun to see if he had any interest in running for state representative. Braun did, and he easily won the primary and ran unopposed in the general election.
At the Statehouse, Braun authored legislation on property tax relief and conservation issues and called for greater transparency in health care costs. In his final year in the Legislature, he worked with Republicans to increase the state’s gas tax 10 cents a gallon to provide for additional road funding.
In November 2017, Braun was midway through his second term as a state lawmaker when he decided to resign and throw his hat into the 2018 U.S. Senate race.
Two other contenders, 6th District congressman Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, then the representative for Indiana’s 4th Congressional District, had already been locked in a battle for the Republican nomination when Braun entered the fray.
Outside of his hometown or the halls of the Statehouse, Braun was largely unknown and was seen as a long shot. But that quickly changed when Braun used $6 million of his own money to launch an advertising blitz.
Braun saw an opening for himself. So he traveled around the state in his signature blue button-down collared shirt, holding two life-size cardboard cutouts of Messer and Braun, both wearing similar blue suits and red ties.
His campaign used the footage for a 30-second ad that ran across the state, essentially asking Hoosiers if they could tell the difference between the supposed D.C. swamp creatures.
That prompted Politico to run a feature on Braun with the headline, “Indiana mystery man upends bloody GOP Senate primary.”
Braun easily won the primary and went on to beat incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly by 12 points, flipping a key Senate seat in the 2018 midterm elections.
His race to lose?
This time around, Braun doesn’t need to resort to histrionics; he can run on his record, name recognition and a vast fundraising network. He told IBJ he doesn’t plan to run any negative campaign commercials but recognizes he will likely be the main target of any attack ads that hit the airwaves in the coming months.
Other campaigns likely will have to get creative to outflank Braun. In a recent gubernatorial forum, Hill accused Braun of “quitting” the Senate, and the Chambers campaign recently accused Braun of “playing politics” with the border crisis after he joined Trump’s call to denounce the Senate border deal.
“U.S. Sen Mike Braun should do the job that Hoosiers sent him to Washington, D.C., to do—to get things done, not play politics,” said Marty Obst, chief campaign strategist for Chambers. “Our country’s front door is closed, and our back door remains wide open. Meanwhile, career politicians like U.S. Sen. Mike Braun would rather talk about it than do something about it. It’s unacceptable, and yet another example of why Indiana can’t afford a career politician as its next governor.”
Braun’s longtime supporters insist he hasn’t been compromised by Washington.
“I don’t think it’s changed Mike at all,” said Brad Jackson, a Kosciusko County commissioner who let Braun stay at his house during his 2018 Senate campaign. “I always used to say, ‘Some things happen to people, and some people happen to things,’ and Braun is the latter. He’s a strong leader and not influenced by stuff like that.”•