Republican U.S. Senate nominee Mike Braun celebrates with his wife and family in Whitestown Tueday night. (HPI Photo by Mark Curry)
Republican U.S. Senate nominee Mike Braun celebrates with his wife and family in Whitestown Tueday night. (HPI Photo by Mark Curry)
FORT WAYNE – In a contest in which two candidates were jockeying to prove who liked Trump best and a third who is actually like Trump, it is not surprising that Donald Trump again won an Indiana primary.

The battle of the three Wabash College grads was not pretty. On the Tuesday night, I was watching the five o’clock news on WANE-TV and something dramatic seemed to be missing. Then I realized what when an ad for a colonoscopy came on and it seemed almost refreshing.  Here are initial observations on the Tuesday results of the Republican Senate primary. 

The Basics

1. Having a geographical home base still matters in a competitive race, though not as much as it once did. Congressman Messer did very well in his congressional district but fared poorly elsewhere. Congressman Rokita’s best areas were in his congressional district and Lake County, his county of birth. He didn’t do as well as Messer did in his home base, but he competed closely with Braun across northern Indiana (where Messer was swamped) and competed well in southwest Indiana. Braun won by large margins in southwest Indiana, winning his home county of Dubois with 84% of the vote. He showed more hometown strength than either of the congressmen. He also won 2/3 of the counties in the state and finished second where he didn’t win. Most importantly, Braun won all of the big counties except Lake. 

2. Issues still matter, but not like they once did. You can buy support with well-funded claims. Rokita and Messer had records on pro-life and pro-gun issues. It didn’t matter. Braun bought proof by asserting it.

3. The Indianapolis region establishment is frayed if it even exists anymore. Party control is gone; the people choose. Messer, the presumptive establishment favorite, was crushed by Braun in Hamilton and Marion counties. Rokita was even close to Messer in those areas. That was not supposed to happen. 

The Ads

1. A single defining ad can set the entire tone for a race. The Braun cardboard cutouts ad captured the dual theme that the two congressmen were alike and both part of Washington. His early ads set it up by framing Mike Braun as a conservative and a businessman. Then, while at times his campaign seemed to get distracted as opposed to hammering versions of that clear theme, he did enough similar variations that anybody with a television set, radio, phone, computer or any other device understood his core message. 

2. This defining ad is especially effective if the intended target – in this case, two targets – behave precisely as portrayed. Congressmen Rokita and Messer looked the part, acted the part and lived the roles since they were competitors in college. It is incredible that as 20-year-olds, both were even pulled over by police the same year (1990). During much of the evening, both had 29% of the vote.  Not even the best ad firm available could have dreamed that the cardboard cutouts would become that real during the campaign. Usually you don’t get to write your opponents’ scripts.

3. A candidate needs to explain – clearly – why they seek the job and what they offer. Braun did, the others didn’t.

4. Messer is a competent, nice guy, but 70% of the voters weren’t looking for a competent nice guy. They wanted somebody who could fight and defeat an incumbent senator.

5. If you are too negative or perceived as rude, it backfires except maybe in Lake County. Rokita, who started in the best position, struggled with this in the debates (i.e., don’t interrupt) and his ads offended many people. He still finished second, which showed the potential he had to win and a reservoir of good will. He worked incredibly hard and talked issues. But his pugnacious style was the most common complaint against him. So, fight, but be reasonably nice in the process of punching your opponent.

6. A single counterpoint charge, if presented clearly, can undermine a well-conceived campaign plan. In this campaign, as Braun seemed on the verge of obliterating his competition by 20 points or more, the charge that he was actually a Democrat became prominent. Braun was a lifelong Democrat in the only factual way to determine it. That fact caused a significant percentage of the people who backed him to have doubts. His response in advertising was not defensive; he claimed that he was actually a lifelong Republican. But his opponents, behaving precisely like the cutout twins they were charged with being, simply were too focused on besting each other to develop a creative or effective attack on Braun. Generally, they continued to attack each other, as if either was ever ahead, and then bashed Braun as a Democrat. But their attacks on each other overshadowed assertions against Braun. It undoubtedly tightened the race, but many Republicans were so turned off or wanted someone they perceived as a real change agent, that they decided to vote for Braun even if they believed he was a Democrat. They wanted to believe Braun and they did. It is an interesting insight into people’s minds and how advertising works.

Mike Braun going forward

1. Mike Braun proved that he is the strongest candidate to defeat Sen. Joe Donnelly.

2. The gas tax issue ran on empty, though it did aggravate state legislators across the state. Quietly, that made some difference – and Donnelly certainly can’t use it while wandering around on Indiana roads in an RV. 

3. Whether you live in Indiana still matters, though the issue was not fully exploited. Donnelly would have done so, had Messer been the nominee. His RV approach was a mix of Mitch Daniels and preparing for Messer. Braun is what he says he is, a Hoosier.

4. Will Braun be prepared to invest at least another $6 million, or make peace with the people he said were part of the swamp, in order to raise funds? 

5. Mike Braun is an impressive guy. He is not inexperienced. He was on a local school board for over a decade (probably key to understanding why he voted in Democrat primaries, combined with his focus on his Jasper business) and he served as a state representative. No allegations of his being a bomb thrower in those political experiences emerged. By all accounts, public and private, he seemed like a serious person who tried to learn how things work and fix them in practical, business-like ways. In other words, a Harvard MBA who came back to Indiana and built a successful national business. 

6. Because Braun is not part of Washington, he starts with a huge advantage in opposing an incumbent – Swamp Part Two. But Joe Donnelly has already begun defining who he is: A non-partisan guy, a typical Hoosier who wanders around Indiana in an RV and cares about you. He will let the attack dogs of the Democrat National Committee and independent groups try to rip Braun to shreds. The Republican attack dogs will do the same to Donnelly.

Come election night in November, colonoscopy ads might again seem refreshing. Unless, seeing how well negative ads work in Indiana, the colonoscopy companies start savaging each other as well. (Don’t dwell on that analogy too long.)

Souder is a former Republican Member of Congress from Indiana.