INDIANAPOLIS — More than a year ago, when U.S. Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer began angling for the 2018 U.S. Senate nomination just as President Trump commenced a fitful start, there was the big question: Are you sure you want to give up safe House seats to run in a first Trump mid-term?
MSNBC’s Steve Kornacke provided the grist: Since 1998, incumbent senators in “hostile states” (which went for the current White House occupant) were 21-3. The questions increased by mid-summer when Jasper businessman Mike Braun began exploring a run. With congressional approval at an anemic to torpid sub-20 percent approval, this would be a run through razor wire, minefields and shooting galleries.
Both Rokita and Messer let their ambitions rule, though credible sources say that the latter was conflicted until just days before his mid-summer entry at a Morristown barbecue. When the primary dust settled around 8:45 p.m. Tuesday, there was Braun, a winner by more than 50,000 votes at 41 percent, poised to take on U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly.
“This started happening about a year ago; all along I sensed that people thought it could not be done,” Braun told a small but enthusiastic victory party at a Whitestown brewery minutes after his victory had been sealed. “Many friends in Jasper said, ‘Do you need to have your head examined?’ and I said, ‘Maybe I do.’”
Braun then said, “Someone from the private sector, maybe that’s the kind of new dynamic we need in Washington.”
So Rokita and Messer join Marlin Stutzman whose congressional careers end, at least for now, in an attempt to reach for the upper chamber. Few are characterizing Braun’s victory as an upset. Outside of an incumbent’s safely drawn district boundaries, the barnacles and ballast associated with a congressional career are now well documented. Rokita and Messer find themselves in the dustbin.
Braun presents the most credible and dangerous challenge to Donnelly.
The Howey Politics Indiana Horse Race starts the Braun v. Donnelly race as “Leans” Democrat.
Morning Consult has put Trump’s approve/disapprove at 47/48 percent in Indiana and he is -14 percent with Hoosier independent voters; the U.S. right/wrong track is at 37/55 percent. But Braun appears to present the best GOP matchup against Donnelly. He has claimed the outside-the-swamp mantle of President Trump.
He has no congressional voting record to defend and, as a self-funder, enters the showdown with Donnelly with the ability to compete in what will likely be a $100 million race by the time the dust settles this November. He enters the November showdown well-heeled, having spent $6 million on the primary.
Donnelly is girding for a $100 million race. “The Koch Brothers have already spent $7 million and maybe more in Indiana,” Donnelly said. “The Republican Party will have almost unlimited funding. I have never been under the impression we wouldn’t be out-spent.”
As Donnelly headed to Terre Haute the morning after the election to attend the funeral of a police officer, he told me that he figured early on that Braun would be the nominee. It was a similar calculation that he made in 2011 when he figured a challenge to U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar was a better option than running for reelection.
“Actually, I saw this months ago,” Donnelly said.
Asked whether Braun poses a tougher challenge than Rokita or Messer, Donnelly answered, “It doesn’t matter to me one way or the other. I didn’t worry who was going to come out of it.”
Donnelly also took aim at the GOP’s botched Obamacare repeal and replace efforts. He accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of sabotaging the health care pools. “It will significantly cost more for health care premiums,” Donnelly insisted. “It will wipe out any gains of the tax cuts.”
“It’s going to be a choice,” Donnelly continued. “Who’s going to support affordable health care? Who’s going to be an independent voice? If President Trump is right, I will support him every time. But my job is not to be a cheerleader for the president. My job is to work non-stop for Hoosiers.”
For his part, Braun characterized Donnelly’s Senate career as “a fluke” and is prepared to defend the tax cuts and exploit Donnelly’s vote for Obamacare.
“We’ve got to prove to the people across the country that free enterprise works,” Braun said. “His record lines up with Pelosi and Schumer across the board and he has disguised himself from real Hoosier values. I think his record is going to be flushed out and I think that’s what is going to carry us to victory.”
Donnelly has heard such rhetoric before. Just months after his vote for Obamacare in the House, he narrowly fended off a challenge from then-State Rep. Jackie Walorski in 2010, then defeated Richard Mourdock for the Senate seat in 2012. Like Braun, Mourdock had hoped the Hoosier aversion to Obamacare was his path to victory. It didn’t happen. Mourdock was a flawed, undisciplined candidate. Braun is his antithesis.
If you’re a Republican, the Braun nomination is an early tonic. It’s the GOP’s best-case scenario after a snotty, cafeteria food fight that Sen. Blutarski of Delta House would have relished.
Now the real, epic battle commences. This will be a sensational Senate showdown.