WASHINGTON – Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly and his Republican challenger, former state Rep. Mike Braun, bust out their blue shirts on the campaign trail. But when one of them is serving in the Senate next year, he will be wearing a jacket and tie, a sartorial change depicting governance that Donnelly can use to his advantage.
 
Braun upended his primary challengers – Reps. Todd Rokita, R-4th, and Luke Messer, R-6th – by touting his outsider status. The anti-Washington trope can be a powerful campaign theme, but there is a potentially compelling counter-argument. Once Braun comes to the capital and starts wearing a suit, he has to decide how much of a check he wants the Senate to be on President Donald Trump.
 
So far, the indication is that he won’t provide any brake on the president. Braun is a businessman who doesn’t push back on Trump’s tariffs against steel and aluminum from the European Union, Mexico and Canada and a variety of products from China. The retaliation to these levies could hammer Hoosier farmers and manufacturers.
 
Braun wants to scrap the Affordable Care Act and start from scratch on health care reform. Presumably, he backs the Trump administration’s decision not to defend in court provisions of the law that would prevent insurers from denying coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Even Hoosiers critical of Obamacare likely take comfort in that part of the measure.
 
When it comes to the Supreme Court nomination of federal judge Brett Kavanaugh that Trump announced on Monday night, Braun is all in with the president. He already has made a pre-emptive strike on Donnelly assuming that Donnelly also will support the president’s choice for political reasons. That rhetorical tactic shows that Braun is getting the hang of the so-called swamp that he criticizes. The SCOTUS pre-action designed to box Donnelly in is a time-honored Beltway move.

It also illustrates how Donnelly can counter Braun by showing that he can be a check on Trump when he’s wearing a suit and tie on the Senate floor – and he can do so while still keeping the door open to working with Trump.

When Donnelly casts his vote on Kavanaugh, it won’t really matter where he comes down as long as he credibly explains why he’s taken his position.
 
In a statement, he called the administration’s move on pre-existing conditions “the latest deliberate and harmful action taken by the administration to create chaos and uncertainty and drive up health care costs for families.”
 
When $34 billion in U.S. tariffs on Chinese good went into effect on July 6, likely triggering Chinese retaliation against U.S. soybeans and other crops, Donnelly responded by saying in a statement: “I urge the administration to instead take measured, targeted action in a way that will allow manufacturers, the steel industry and all our farmers to continue selling quality products all over the world.”
 
Trump backed off the administration policy to separate families of undocumented immigrants at the border and then told Congress to fix the problem. So far, the Republican House has failed.
 
Donnelly is offering himself as someone who can get the job done when he’s wearing a suit and tie: “As I’ve said, it will take President Trump, [Senate] Majority Leader [Mitch] McConnell and [House] Speaker [Paul] Ryan working with those of us who have shown we’re willing to find a bipartisan solution.”
 
Is Braun committed to a bipartisan path on volatile issues or only the Trump path? So far, it looks as if it’s the latter. The Braun campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment. If Braun is beholden to Trump rather than to the Senate as an institution, can he be a check on Trump? The urgency of answering that question may increase this fall.
 
Donnelly has used the words “chaos” and “uncertainty” to describe Trump policies. Another word that might fit by the fall is “reckless” – especially if the Trump tariffs cause economic pain for Trump voters and the president threatens to shut down the government over funding for a wall on the Mexican border.
 
Donnelly “will not be an automatic ‘yes’ or an automatic ‘no,’” Ron Klain, a former official in Democratic White Houses, told the Indianapolis Star recently. “That’s one of his great strengths in this race.”
 
If Braun wants to appeal to voters in the middle who think it’s a good idea to rein in Trump – and who may provide the winning margin in November – he might want to start to show some independence from the president. 

Schoeff is HPI’s Washington correspondent.