A wealthy former state lawmaker defeated two congressmen Tuesday in Indiana’s Republican Senate primary, ending a bitter campaign dominated by personal attacks that drew national attention for its nasty tone.
Republican Mike Braun advances to a November matchup with Democrat Joe Donnelly, who is considered one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents.
It was an outcome few expected when Braun launched his campaign in August against the two well established political brands, who have collectively served about 25 years in elected office.
The owner of a national auto parts distribution company, Braun used his own wealth to lend his campaign more than $6 million. He proceeded to carpet bomb television with ads characterizing Braun as an “outsider” while portraying Messer and Rokita as two “swamp brothers” cut from the same cloth.
In one particularly effective ad, Braun walked around his hometown of Jasper carrying cardboard cutouts of Rokita and Messer in identical suits while asking bystanders if they could tell the two apart.
Tom Mote, 66, of Indianapolis voted for Braun because he campaigned as an “outsider” and was turned off by fighting between Messer and Rokita.
But he was less optimistic about his party’s chances of beating Donnelly.
“Donnelly’s been very low-key and not very controversial,” said Mote. “It’s a Republican state, but it’s hard to beat an incumbent.”
Now Messer and Rokita will both be out of jobs come next year, after giving up their safe Republican seats to run for Senate.
But after a brutal campaign fueled by damaging news stories about all three candidates, there was concern among some Republicans that enough damage was done to the party’s brand to impact its chances in the head-to-head with Donnelly.
All three candidates were the subject of unflattering news stories that have dredged up out-of-state living arrangements, questionable uses of tax dollars, drunken-driving convictions, voting histories and ethical transgressions.
Meanwhile, the three have fallen over one another to assert they’d be President Donald Trump’s biggest ally in the Senate.
Rokita in particular has tested whether a Republican candidate not named Trump can find success by adopting the president’s over-the-top and confrontational style.
His campaign slogan is “Defeat the Elite,” and he is seen in TV ads drinking beer, firing an AR-15 rifle and donning one of Trump’s red “Make America Great Again” hats.
After some early skirmishes with Rokita last summer, Messer tried to rise above the fray, insisting that he was “laser focused” on defeating Donnelly while bemoaning the personal attacks. But he shed that approach months ago and waged a two-front negative ad campaign against both of his opponents.
Messer was highly critical of Trump throughout the 2016 general election. He later came around, suggesting the president should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize while praising the “Trump agenda” — if not always the president’s inflammatory rhetoric and tweets.
Despite the outsider image and blitz of TV advertising, Braun was dogged by his lengthy history voting as a Democrat in Indiana primary elections. Braun says he’s a lifelong Republican and only did it to have an impact on local races, but his opponents used that, as well as his vote in the Legislature to hike gas taxes, to attack him.