SOUTH BEND – Sen. Joe Donnelly is seeking to turn Mike Braun’s blue shirt inside out, seeking to make the Republican challenger look funny, phony. Braun’s trademark blue shirt was positive attire for him in defeating two formidable Republican congressmen in the GOP primary. He contrasted his open-collar look with cardboard cutouts of the congressmen, each with coat and tie, Washington lookalikes. His TV ads on that theme, blue-shirt outsider from the business world vs. Washington suits, were acclaimed as best in the Indiana primary, key to his victory.

Blue shirt giveth. Could blue shirt taketh away?

The Democratic Senate Majority PAC, supporting Donnelly, has countered Braun’s claim as an open-collar-blue-shirt kind of guy, mocking him in a series of TV ads as really a millionaire businessman mistreating workers and falsely denying selling “Made in China” stuff.

One TV spot featured two Mikes in blue shirts. One is identified as Mike Hunter, an electrician who “wears a blue shirt to work.” The other is Braun, “who wears one to hide the truth.”

Another showed multiple pictures of Braun in his blue shirt, while a narrator declares: “How to act like you stand up for workers: Wear a blue shirt . . . again, and again and again. Just ask millionaire Mike Braun. But a blue shirt can’t hide a bad record. Mike Braun’s company has been cited 122 times for workplace violations, including unsafe conditions and refusing overtime for workers who earned it.”

Some viewers, maybe many, will find mocking of the blue shirt kind of funny, just as many viewers found Braun’s mocking of the suits, the congressmen, funny in the primary campaign.

Belittling suits worked. Will belittling of Braun’s blue shirt as phony work now? If Donnelly wins re-election in this toss-up race, those blue-shirt TV ads could be acclaimed, just as Braun’s ads were this spring.

One of the most effective campaign strategies is to take a positive part of the opponent’s image and turn it into a negative. The congressmen Braun defeated had positive credentials for a Republican primary with their voting records in Washington. Braun turned that into something negative, portraying them as cookie-cutter members of a Congress with low approval.

Now, how many voters looking at Braun will find his blue shirt something positive? How many will come to view it as a symbol of phoniness, something negative?

Donnelly picked up the theme in the first debate, telling his opponent: “Mike, you need to do more than take your tie off to gain the trust of the people of Indiana.”

There actually was speculation before the debate that Braun might show up in different attire. Did he fear his trademark blue shirt had become a joke?

But what could he do? Abandon the trademark attire that had brought success? Wear a red shirt to show readiness to counter any blue wave? Wear an extremely long tie to stress admiration of President Trump? Wear blue suede shoes to match his shirt and attract the votes of Elvis fans?

While both candidates stress cooperating with President Trump, there’s no doubt that Braun, endorsed by Trump, would be more supportive of everything Trump. And there’s no doubt that Donnelly, a moderate who has often sided with Trump proposals, would be more likely to vote against some future Trump proposals.

There are important issues in the Senate race. Health care ranks No. 1. So, should a blue shirt be an issue? Why not? Image is important. Nothing new.

Political consultants, making a living by burnishing or bashing images, could after Nov. 6 advise all male candidates in Indiana to wear open-collar blue shirts. Always. Or they could warn that winning with the blue shirt could lead to losing in the political image battles on TV if your opponent turns your blue shirt inside out. 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.