Jasper, Ind. — It’s not easy to get out to Jasper. The closest airport, Louisville International, is in another state, and it’ll take an hour or two on a series of winding two-lane highways before you find yourself crossing the railroad tracks in the 15,000-person Indiana town.
But that’s how Mike Braun likes it. He was born and raised in Jasper, he’s still here, and if he leaves his hometown it’ll only be because he’s off to represent Indiana in the U.S. Senate. With Election Day approaching, less than three weeks away now, that outcome is looking more and more likely.
Those roads from Louisville will take you past plenty of picturesque corn fields, and the drive gives you the right idea about what’s on the mind of Indiana voters this year. In a state that’s more than 50 percent farmland, the vast fields are a reminder that for voters in Indiana’s many rural areas, politics is all about the economy — as it is in plenty of other places across the country. This is also a traditionally Republican state that fell hard for Donald Trump in 2016, so Democrats may be in for a tough night on November 6.
It’s a stroke of luck for Braun, a long-time small-business man, that he’s running against Democratic senator Joe Donnelly, who’s spent most of the campaign trying to induce voters to forget about the “D” next to his name. Indiana is a red state and a Trump state, and in his single term in the Senate, Donnelly hasn’t done much to convince his constituents that he fits the mold. Meanwhile, in many ways, Braun is more Trump than Trump himself — and he’s got the pulse of the voters in his state, he says, because as an entrepreneur and small-business owner he thinks just like them.
“If Hillary Clinton was president, I would not be running for Senate,” he tells me in his office at Meyer Distributing, the company he founded more than three decades ago. “I’d be hunkered down in southern Indiana, trying to survive over the next two years.”
It’s a sentiment he assures me Hoosiers share, and he knows his chance to steal the Senate seat out from under Donnelly is vastly improved by the fact that there’s a Republican in the White House, a man who talks with more passion about farming and manufacturing than he does about most things, and who captured the state by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016.
If you ask Braun about his political experience — he served in the Indiana General Assembly from 2014 to 2017 representing Jasper — he is quick to insist that he’s a businessman, not a politician. It’s another quality he shares with the president.
He points to the lack of entrepreneurs currently in the Senate, and notes that if he, Rick Scott in Florida, and Mitt Romney in Utah all win their respective races, it’ll double what he calls the “business caucus” in the upper chamber. “We need a whole lot more of them than we do attorneys that never really practiced and became career politicians,” he says. “Nothing against them, but they haven’t delivered us a great product.”
Delivering a product that satisfies is something Braun prides himself on, and he’s sure that his decades building and running a successful manufacturing-supply company will translate well to working in government. He’s quick to outline the ways in which he’s used the GOP tax reform, for example, to bring benefits home to his customers. When asked about the Affordable Care Act, another big issue for Indiana voters, he says he pioneered a health-care plan for his employees that kept premiums stable and affordable — despite fluctuations in the market and the negative ramifications of Obamacare.
That’s a big part of why he thinks voters are primed to support a Republican at the ballot box, though he does acknowledge that not everyone in Indiana is thrilled with the president. “In some of your more moderate parts of the state, I think that’s mostly due to his style and the fact that there’s been a lot of” — here he pauses momentarily — “sideline activities that surface weekly.”
But this administration’s biggest policy changes largely have benefited people in the state, Braun argues, and like many observers of this battleground race, he thinks that’ll be enough. “For most of us, we’re just fed up with the ‘business as usual’ aspect of our federal government,” he says. “The best thing about the Trump agenda is we mean business now. It’s not business as usual.”
It’s a theme Braun returns to often. Trump’s ascendance signaled a necessary shakeup, and even if voters aren’t high on everything he’s done, his victory in 2016 meant something had shifted in what people expect from the federal government. That shift means trouble for Donnelly.
“The biggest thing [voters] are dissatisfied with Donnelly on is his masquerade as a moderate, when on 100 percent of the important pieces of legislation he’s been with Chuck Schumer and Bernie [Sanders] and Elizabeth [Warren] — the liberal side of his party,” Braun says.
This line has been a fixture of the Braun campaign since the moment he won the bitter GOP primary in May — edging out two Republican congressmen — and if he wins, it’ll be that rhetoric that carries him over the finish line. Donnelly, like many of the Democratic senators representing states won in 2016, doesn’t reflect the opinions of the majority of his constituents nearly as often as he’s asking them to believe.
The first-term Democrat voted with the rest of his party against the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act at the end of 2017, for instance, explaining his opposition to what many have called the signature policy achievement of the Trump presidency by saying that it favored businesses over average Americans.
Braun disagrees. “The Democrats have gambled and mis-stepped when they thought tax reform was going to be a class-division issue of only helping the wealthy,” he tells me. “That’s not been the case.” At Meyer Distributing, Braun used the extra revenue from the tax reform to enhance his employees’ 401(k) benefits and lower the costs for family health-care plans. His company also provided a substantial mid-year bonus, explaining to employees that it was a direct result of the tax-reform legislation.
“When employees see that employers are sharing the benefits, what do the Democrats have? More government that they already don’t know how to pay for, borrowing from your kids and your grandkids? Not much of a message,” Braun says. It’s when he talks like this that he’s at his best.
On trade, Braun’s no-nonsense style makes him inclined to face the facts: The president’s policies have yet to bear fruit for Hoosiers, the state’s farmers especially. But the businessman has an excellent grasp of the issue — a much better grasp than Trump does, in fact — and he intends to put it to good use.
“I’m a guy that believes in free trade and unfettered competition,” he says, before going on to explain that tariffs can be useful as a tool to incentivize other economies to cooperate, and he thinks it’s fair to say Trump has had some success on this front. “But there’s collateral damage that comes along with it, farmers particularly here in Indiana,” he admits. “The Chinese are smart. They knew right where to aim the tariffs: at Trump’s most loyal support bloc. If tariffs don’t work against the Chinese — and my prediction is they won’t — you’ve got to pull them back.”
Braun says if he makes it to Washington, trade is one of the top issues he hopes to address. “The first opportunity I have to chat with the president would be to say, ‘Let’s find some other approaches, because the Chinese are not going to fix the issues.’” In other words: Tariffs started the conversation, now let’s finish it in a way that stops hurting people in my state. It’s a way of acknowledging that the president’s “America First” instinct on trade is popular with Indiana voters while still insisting that trade policy must actually help them long-term. If he’s been able to effectively convey that message on the road, Braun will be hard to beat.
There’s been little polling of the Senate race in Indiana — in large part because of state legislation forbidding pollsters from robo-calling or even auto-dialing voters — but the few surveys that have been done give the advantage to the incumbent. That’s to be expected. But it’s not nearly enough of a reason to write off Braun. Just the “R” next to his name will likely be enough for many voters, even if they haven’t heard of him before they enter the voting booth.
And dissatisfaction with Donnelly will only make matters worse. Even though he voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court last year, Donnelly ended up voting against Brett Kavanaugh earlier this month, after much equivocation. As one close observer of the race told National Review, the senator has yet to give a compelling explanation for why he voted the way he did, something that will matter among voters who believed there wasn’t proof of the allegations against Kavanaugh.
At the same time, Braun — who self-funded his successful primary bid — outraised Donnelly in the third quarter, bringing in $5.6 million while the incumbent raised just over $3 million. In a state without much polling, fundraising numbers are a helpful clue, and for Braun to have that much of an advantage less than 20 days before the election is a bad sign for the incumbent.
Democrats across the country don’t seem to be too concerned about this race. In fact, they don’t talk about it much at all. But they ought to be worried. The Democratic senator has managed to avoid outraging his conservative constituents — but that’s mostly because he hasn’t done much at all. A study last fall rated him the least effective Democrat in the Senate. When you’re running in a red state on borrowed GOP talking points, and facing an opponent with a knack for channeling the rhetoric that allowed President Trump to capture Indiana’s rural and Republican voters, having done little to rock the boat for six years isn’t a promising platform.
Braun himself has little political record to speak of. But in Indiana, being an outsider aligned with President Trump gives the businessman from Jasper an edge.