Even as dozens of Democrats in suburban districts across the country swept into the House of Representatives, replacing Republican congressmen in this year’s midterms, GOP candidates managed to unseat vulnerable Democratic senators in four states Donald Trump won two years ago.
Longtime businessman Mike Braun in Indiana and GOP representative Kevin Cramer in North Dakota were two of those victorious Republican challengers, and their successful campaigns suggest that it is possible to capitalize on the most appealing aspects of Trump and his populist agenda without featuring the man himself on the ballot.
Since Trump’s entrance into politics, lawmakers and commentators — especially the former businessman’s most fervent supporters — have argued that his popularity with some working-class voters and his resultant electoral success were closely tied to his personal attributes and couldn’t be separated from him or transferred to other Republicans. At the same time, many left-leaning observers have asserted that Trump’s unpopularity with much of the country has effectively doomed the Republican party, tarnishing GOP politicians and the conservative movement with his deficiencies.
The ability of Republican Senate candidates to unseat Democratic incumbents in Trump country in this year’s midterms — winning the backing of many of the president’s supporters without Trump on the ticket to spur turnout — cuts against both of these notions, with Indiana and North Dakota as prime examples. Braun and Cramer mirrored the president’s “America first” trade rhetoric and his populist sensibilities while avoiding his worst excesses.
In 2016, Trump achieved impressive victories over Hillary Clinton in a number of midwestern states, widening the margins that Mitt Romney had posted over Barack Obama in those same states in 2012. While Romney won Indiana by ten points and North Dakota by 20, Trump trounced Clinton by 19 points in Indiana and 35 in North Dakota. Though neither Braun nor Cramer approached Trump’s margins, they still won big. In the Hoosier State, Braun beat Joe Donnelly by six points, defying the polling. Meanwhile, Cramer thumped Heidi Heitkamp by eleven points.
Donnelly and Heitkamp were both first elected to the Senate in 2012, when they had a built-in advantage with Obama on the ticket. Since then, both Democrats billed themselves as reasonable moderates, though they often didn’t vote like it on the Senate floor. They intensified their efforts to convince voters of their bipartisanship after Trump was elected, and his continued popularity in their states gave Braun and Cramer a battering ram with which to hit the incumbents.
Though Braun and Cramer are vastly different from the president, they managed to portray themselves as similar in sensibility. A crucial part of their strategy was to echo certain aspects of the president’s rhetoric: using an off-the-cuff speaking style and anti-elitist language to appeal to blue-collar and rural voters who were largely disengaged from politics before Trump showed up.
As the founder and CEO of prosperous manufacturing-supply business Meyer Distributing, Braun had a political persona that ran in the same groove as Trump’s: an unpolished outsider who took great pride in his lack of government experience. In May, he seized the Republican Senate nomination by painting his two primary opponents, both U.S. congressmen, as out-of-touch Washington elitists; he first gained national attention with an ad in which he carried cardboard cutouts of his opponents around town, asking passersby to tell them apart.
A boast from Braun’s campaign website best captures his pitch: “Mike’s business does not have revolving gold doors, and Mike does not wear a suit to work.” In a sense, this sort of rhetoric is even more sincere than Trump’s own pitch to blue-collar workers — unlike the ostentatious billionaire, Braun hasn’t used his business success to emblazon his name on country clubs and expensive buildings across the country or plate his toilets in gold.
Cramer, meanwhile, has spent a number of years in office — serving as North Dakota’s at-large U.S. representative since 2013 — but his down-to-earth demeanor and uncommon accessibility helped him avoid coming across as a career politician. Once in Congress, he began calling in to a number of radio shows across the state three or four times a week to take questions from constituents, none of whom were screened in advance. He instituted “Coffee with Cramer” town halls in every corner of North Dakota, not only in the major cities of Fargo, Bismarck, Minot, and Grand Forks but also in less populous areas, such as Watford City in the state’s northwestern oil patch.
Running against Heitkamp, who is known among local media for avoiding confrontational interviews, Cramer leveraged his reputation for authenticity and availability to claim the mantle of better understanding the people in his state.
Both candidates, then, maintained an advantage over their Democratic opponents by channeling the kind of plainspoken rhetoric that endeared Trump the businessman to blue-collar workers and rural voters in Indiana and North Dakota. But while both took positions similar to Trump’s, especially on trade and immigration, they maintained nuance and remained aware of the ways in which his policy agenda could alienate even sympathetic voters.
Their strategy on trade — arguably the issue on which Trump has remained the most consistent throughout his campaign and in the Oval Office — was the perfect example. The agricultural livelihoods of huge numbers of people in Indiana and North Dakota enabled Trump to gain rural support in these states by promising to forge trade deals that would increase farmers’ profit margins. To judge from these two Republican wins, the negative effects of Trump-administration tariffs have yet to dissuade a critical mass of these and other working-class voters from supporting the GOP.
But Braun and Cramer also knew that it isn’t enough for Republican candidates to parrot Trump’s line on trade and hope for the best. They vocally emphasized the need to place American interests first, but they also frankly acknowledged the ways in which the escalating tariffs have backfired and hurt the same people who believed that Trump could improve their prospects, especially voters who work in agriculture and manufacturing.
In an interview with National Review during the campaign, Braun said he “believes in free trade and unfettered competition” and explained that tariffs are useful only as a tool to push countries to negotiate new deals that will benefit the U.S. “But there’s collateral damage that comes along with it — farmers, particularly, here in Indiana,” he admitted.
“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 added. “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.’” Now that Indiana’s voters have sent Braun to Capitol Hill, he’ll have his chance at that conversation.
On trade, Braun struck the exact right balance. He recognized that Trump’s tariffs had started a necessary negotiation, particularly with China, that could lead to improvements for farmers and manufacturers in his state. But some of the people hurt by the ensuing trade war were Braun’s voters, and, unlike the president, he was willing to acknowledge those costs.
It was a synthesis that proved impossible for Joe Donnelly to beat. According to a late-October CBS/YouGov survey, 70 percent of Indiana voters said agriculture plays a major role in their local economy, and a plurality of respondents (46 percent) said they believed that the Trump-administration tariffs would lead to better trade deals after about a year. In short, voters who supported Trump in the hopes of improved trade prospects were content to wait for positive effects, and Braun’s ability to wink at protectionism while still espousing the free market appealed to them. According to exit polls, 45 percent of Hoosiers trusted Braun to handle trade policy, compared with 40 percent who said they trusted Donnelly. Among the third of Indiana voters who said Trump’s trade policies had already helped the local economy, an overwhelming 93 percent voted for Braun.
Out in the Great Plains, Cramer took a similar tack on the issue, though he tilted more toward backing Trump’s trade policy than Braun did. He was quick to admit that North Dakota farmers experienced heavy blowback from the escalating trade war — especially from retaliatory Chinese tariffs on soybeans, a significant part of the state’s agricultural output — but he insisted that voters were nonetheless supportive of Trump’s effort to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and impose tariffs on China for its unlawful trading practices.
“We’re better off if we stand with our president during this negotiating time so that other countries see a unified U.S.,” he told National Review in June. “The best way to end this early and to our advantage is to demonstrate a unified front.” Cramer argued that farmers remained willing to weather initial losses, expecting that Trump could still negotiate more-beneficial deals — a huge reason they had voted for him in 2016. Earlier in the summer, Cramer sounded a bit more like Braun: “If tariffs are used to our advantage in negotiations, great. If tariffs become a trade-war weapon, big problem.”
Cramer stuck to the “America first” line while still acknowledging the costs, and again, it worked. According to exit polls, he received 90 percent support among the quarter of voters who said Trump’s trade policies had helped the local economy, as well as 71 percent support from the third of voters who said the policies have had no effect yet.
For better or worse, no politician is quite like Trump. But Braun and Cramer have shown it is possible for Republicans to adapt elements of the president’s rhetorical strategy, avoid his shortcomings, and win.