With six days to go until the May 8 Indiana U.S. Senate Republican primary, businessman and former Democrat Mike Braun has turned a big bank roll and a clever gimmick into an effective branding tool that separates his candidacy from his two main rivals, Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) and Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN).
The winner will face incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), one of ten incumbent Democratic senators up for re-election in 2018 in a state President Donald Trump won in 2016.
Braun has portrayed himself as a pro-Trump agenda outsider, while casting his two opponents as “swamp creatures” who have spent their lives as politicians.
The reported momentum for his candidacy is yet another demonstration of the veracity of the political advice conservative icon Richard Viguerie gives candidates, “A critical rule in politics is: Define or be defined.”
Both Rokita and Messer are life long Republicans with generally conservative voting records who are strong supporters of President Trump’s agenda.
Braun, in contrast, voted in Democratic primaries for years until 2014, when he was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives as a Republican.
He began defining his public image as a pro-Trump, populist conservative with a political ad that began airing in November that showed him talking to Indiana voters while he carries two cardboard cutouts of Messer and Rokita in poses that make them appear to be indistinguishable.
Throughout the campaign he has continued to carefully manage how voters perceive him with tightly controlled messaging in environments he controls.
While Rokita and Messer have appeared frequently as guests on Breitbart News radio on SiriusXM, for instance, Braun has refused to come on the program.
Braun has effectively used visual imagery to define himself in ways that separate him from his two main rivals.
“Dressed casually without a coat or tie, Braun attacked both Rokita and Messer—each dressed in suit and tie—as “lawyers that never really practiced, career politicians,” a description he applied to Donnelly as well,” Breitbart reported in February when the three leading candidates squared off in a debate.
While Braun has generated great “word of mouth” and personal branding with the ad, there has been no publicly reported polling on the race since January. As a consequence, there is no hard data that supports the assertion advanced by Politico on Monday that “Braun swooped to the front of the Indiana primary while Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita attacked each other.”
“The self-funding businessman emerged seemingly out of nowhere last fall and is now on the brink of dispatching Rokita and Messer by portraying them as a pair of interchangable D.C. swamp creatures. Powering Braun’s effort is nearly $6 million of his own money that he’s loaned or given to his campaign to capture the nomination to face Sen. Joe Donnelly in the fall,” Politico reported:
If Braun prevails next week — he is seen as the nominal favorite and has vastly outspent his opponents — it would stand as one of the first real surprises in a Republican primary this election cycle. It would also serve as a blunt demonstration of how anti-Washington, anti-incumbent sentiment could shape the outcome of the November elections.
“There’s not a lot of daylight between any of them on the issues,” GOP pollster Christine Matthews, who served as a strategist for former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, said of the three candidates. “What Braun has been able to do is say, ‘The difference with me is I’m not a professional politician.’”
Rokita and Messer have little time to point out the disparities between Braun’s carefully defined image as seen by the voters.
A story published by the Associated Press on Tuesday may help them advance that cause.
“Braun has blamed ‘career politicians’ for outsourcing good-paying jobs overseas, while pledging he’ll help bring them back. Yet when it comes to his own businesses, Braun’s record falls far short of his campaign rhetoric, a review by the Associated Press found,” the Associated Press reported on Monday:
Meyer Distributing, the Jasper-based national auto parts distribution company Braun owns, does brisk business importing goods from the same overseas countries he has criticized for taking American jobs. He also has accepted government subsidies, despite criticizing the practice.
And lawsuits filed against his companies — backed up by federal trucking and labor records — present a picture of a boss who has overworked and underpaid employees.
That could blunt charges of hypocrisy Braun has leveled against Donnelly, a longtime outsourcing critic who sold stock in a family business after the AP reported the company owned a factory in Mexico. It also opens him up to similar charges from his GOP opponents in the May 8 primary, Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, whom he has accused of saying one thing on the campaign trail only to “do something else when you get to D.C.”
Campaign spokesman Josh Kelley said Braun tries to distribute American-made goods but faces profitability challenges in a global economy. He also denied that workers are treated poorly and maintains that the company has a better than average safety record.
However, over the past decade, workers have sued in West Virginia, Oklahoma and California, alleging they were forced to work long hours in unsafe conditions and denied overtime pay, meal times and breaks.
With six days until election day next Tuesday, it could be a case of too little too late for the two veteran Republican politicians.
Both Messer and Rokita, however, appear to be willing to run through the tape, so the outcome of the GOP primary next Tuesday will likely hang in the balance until after the polls close.