GOP Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita — personal and political rivals going back to their college days — have been locked in a bitter two-way fight for more than a year for the right to take on one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats seeking reelection this fall.
Then along came Mike Braun.
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 either loaned or given to his campaign to capture the nomination to face Sen. Joe Donnelly in the fall.
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 election.
“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.’”
The seat is seen as possibly the best pickup opportunity in a midterm landscape tilted heavily against President Donald Trump and his party. Donnelly, who won the seat in 2012 only after his GOP opponent self-destructed with comments about rape and abortion, is seeking a second term in a state President Donald Trump carried by 19 percentage points in 2016.
Each of the three Republicans has tried to claim the Trump mantle. Braun, doubling down on the outsider message, says in his closing argument TV ad that he’s running “because President Trump paved the way.” In one of his television spots, Rokita dons a “Make America Great Again” hat. Messer’s office said last week he is “actively gathering support” in Congress to nominate Trump for next year’s Nobel Peace Prize for bringing North Korea and South Korea to the negotiating table to end the Korean War.
The most indelible image of the campaign is Braun’s most buzzworthy TV ad, in which he carries life-size, cardboard cutouts of Messer and Rokita around town, asking voters if they can tell them apart. In the cutouts, both congressmen are wearing navy-blue suits, with white dress shirts and solid-red ties — an idea that came to Braun’s campaign and its media consultant, Jamestown Associates, when Messer and Rokita dressed alike at the first televised debate of the campaign.
“These guys look like they’re cut from the same cardboard,” one voter says in the ad. “I couldn’t tell you which one’s which,” adds another.
Braun’s ad campaign has defined the race. He launched his first spots last November — months before Messer and Rokita hit the airwaves.
Through April 18, Braun had spent $4.6 million on the race, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission last week. That’s more than the $2.9 million Messer has spent. Rokita had spent $2.1 million through March 31; the FEC didn’t receive his latest report before last week's deadline and has sent a letter to Rokita’s campaign to clarify the situation.
Much of the pre-primary slog has been characterized by mudslinging. Messer and Rokita have sparred over past alcohol-related misdeeds in their respective pasts: Messer has been convicted of driving under the influence twice two decades ago, and Rokita was pulled over in college for speeding by a police officer who said he appeared intoxicated and presented the officer with a fake ID. (Rokita pleaded guilty to speeding, and any DUI or fake-ID charges were dismissed.)
Messer and Rokita have spent most of the primary aiming at each other, despite Braun’s ascendance. Strategists seem them as competing for the same pool of voters — particularly in the Indianapolis market, where a plurality of voters reside.
When Messer and Rokita have trained their sights on Braun, it’s mostly been to attack him for voting in previous Democratic primaries. Braun, who was elected to the state House as a Republican in 2014, participated in Democratic primaries through 2012, according to The Associated Press, which reviewed voting records.
His campaign says Braun voted in Democratic primaries to meddle in their outcomes, and that Braun is a lifetime member of the GOP. (Indiana doesn’t have partisan voter registration, and voters can pick either primary ballot when they arrive at the polls.)
Former Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) — in a column for Howey Politics Indiana, an in-state political newsletter — wrote last week that the nomination “has apparently come down to a choice between one of the cardboard cutouts or a Democrat.”
There have been other attacks, too. Rokita was rebuked by Trump’s presidential campaign for yard signs that implied, incorrectly, that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had endorsed his Senate candidacy. Messer highlighted the dust-up in one of his campaign ads.
Messer’s campaign has also attacked Rokita for calling Trump “vulgar, if not profane” in a February 2016 interview.
And while Messer wants to give Trump the Nobel Prize now, the Rokita camp has highlighted past statements from Messer during the 2016 campaign suggesting Trump wouldn’t be up to the job as president. An ad launched by Rokita’s campaign last week calls his opponent “NEVER TRUMPER LUKE MESSER” in on-screen text.
Braun, meanwhile, has been the subject of news stories that suggest he took actions as a state legislator that would benefit his timber business.
All of these attack lines were on full display Monday night in Indianapolis during the final televised debate of the campaign — a bruising, one-hour event in which both Messer and Rokita aimed most of their jabs at Braun, signaling his front-runner status.
Braun tried to shrug off the barrage. "They’re circling the drain," said Braun. "They know they’re losing their career job — and thank goodness."
While the Republicans fire on each other, Donnelly is seeking to counterprogram the GOP primary — launching his first ad last month, a spot that touts his bipartisan bona fides.
Donnelly still faces a difficult path to reelection. But his campaign believes the nasty GOP primary will produce a weaker nominee for the general election. “Whoever emerges, there is going to be $1 million in negative ads spent against them” in the primary, said Will Baskin-Gerwitz, communications director for Donnelly’s campaign.
While most observers see Braun as the most likely victor next week, there is little public polling in the race, lending greater-than-usual uncertainty to the outcome. Brian Howey, who runs Howey Politics Indiana, told the Weekly Standard last week that he “could not find a media or corporate polling partner for the primary, which is amazing, given all the money that's spilling into this race.”
Matthews, the former Daniels pollster who conducted surveys in the past for Howey’s newsletter, also lamented the lack of public data in the contest.
“There haven’t been any sponsors,” she said. “You need to have some interest, whether it’s the media or a university, saying ‘I’m willing to fund this. It’s important.’ And it’s a shame.”