FORT WAYNE – A modern-day Rip Van Winkle, who just woke up and started to watch ads on television for the Indiana Senate race, might fairly conclude that Hoosiers are obsessing over how to choose between a candidate who had stock in a company run by his brother that had a plant in Mexico and one whose auto supply company sold parts made in China.  

While I know some of you may have been losing sleep over this dilemma, it is obviously somewhere between 98% and 100% irrelevant in this race. It was apparent from the day the media first reported about Mexico Joe’s stock and his sale of it, that the ads would be coming. It was also apparent – in fact, I predicted it during the primary campaign – that anyone owning any automobile parts business (actually any retail store) would be vulnerable to a “you sell parts made in China” slam.  

But all choices of what ads to run are instructive – about the candidates, about their allies, and frankly about us, the voters.  

First, the obvious: Race matters, just talk about it indirectly. John Mutz lost his close gubernatorial race largely because of an ad that attacked him for bringing in a Japanese plant to Tippecanoe County, back when such things were inflammatory. It was a winking reference, but it was effective. Had it been more direct, it could have led to backlash. Instead, it effectively raised the point. The Japanese were getting our money.  

If you doubt similar hidden messages in the Indiana Senate race, let’s address the actual substance of the debate briefly (I recognize that the substance is not very relevant). President Trump appears to have renegotiated NAFTA with Mexico. It is those Canadians who are the actual trade problem, at least according to the administration. So the whole Mexico Joe debate is pretty irrelevant.  

As for China Mike, the China trade war could fix that problem. We all will just pay a lot more for auto parts, unless his business and others replace Chinese-made parts with slightly higher-priced parts from our new friends in Mexico. That should make everyone happy, if they actually are taking the ads seriously.

On the other hand, we don’t have a deal with Canada yet. In the days immediately following 9/11, as the congressman representing the Fort Wayne area, we had a border problem. Just in time, delivery schedules had jammed up our GM Silverado plant schedules because of parts supply problems. As one former plant manager told me, unofficially, each pick-up made had up to 100 Canadian border crossings involved in the thousands of parts that go into the truck because there were sister operations near Toronto. The plants were synchronized, for many logical business reasons. The American and Canadian auto belts are geographically meshed.  

However, there are no ads attacking Canada Mike. They would seem a tad ridiculous. “Mike Braun drinks Tim Hortons coffee” just doesn’t inspire many people to anger. In my decade as part of the U.S.-Canada Parliamentary Exchange, I learned many things. Perhaps the most important can be illustrated by a joke. If you are in a room full of Canadians and Americans, you know the quickest way to identify who is from where? Loudly say: “Americans and Canadians are just alike.” Everyone who objects will be a Canadian. I actually haven’t even met a Canadian who laughed at the joke.

Furthermore, going even a bit deeper into the subject, the majority of Americans – and certainly in Indiana – disagree with the core of our government’s dispute with Canada, imported timber. When we’d argue about this in our cross-border sessions, most of the American congressmen supported the Canadians. In the U.S. our wood supplies are limited for many reasons. A limited supply means dramatically higher prices if we are limited to American timber. Furthermore, as a furniture man (I was in our family’s furniture business for years and on the boards of the Indiana and Midwest Home Furnishings Associations), there are limitations to soft southern pine. And good luck trying to cut down more trees in Oregon, Washington and Northern California.   

In other words, the direct threat to the housing industry (homebuilding, realtors, financial institutions) is this misguided fight over timber. Our prices could skyrocket. But I guess it is asking too much for our politicians, or even the media, to understand the debate. And the Canadians make for boring political debate.  

The second part of the Mexico Joe-China Mike debate, beyond race, has to do with charges of hypocrisy. Sen. Donnelly knew the border debate was coming so he has morphed into a big defender of reasonably strong borders, though not necessarily of a “wall.” He has always been conservative for a Democrat (easier these days as the party drifts left).  But he has not regularly focused on the threat. Thus “Mexico Joe” was seen as a way to highlight the candidate’s differences related to the border. It was also a way to raise DACA without raising DACA.  

Raising the China Mike issue was partly defensive on the part of the Donnelly campaign just as Mexico Joe was by Braun. Braun’s campaign knew his vulnerability for purchasing Chinese and Mexican-made parts in this business. But Donnelly’s campaign and allies also mixed this attack into a “blue shirt” attack ad.  

The problem with the “blue shirt” attack ad is a rather simple marketing principle which, apparently, they forgot. For example, the attacks on his business practices didn’t work in the primary, and except for union activists (as opposed to the rank and file who voted for Trump) most just viewed them as political charges that roll off as if his blue shirt was Teflon.

But the larger forgotten principle is this: It is very expensive, and usually useless, to try and undo an impression that has been burned into people’s minds with millions of dollars. You must bury it, or all you will do is reinforce the original impression. They are not focusing on those ads enough to bury it, and it is not certain they could anyway. When they run Braun in a blue shirt, the Donnelly campaign might be reinforcing Braun’s original message rather than undoing it. They are incredibly ineffective to anyone except gung-ho Donnelly boosters. It is one reason, in spite of a low visibility campaign with less firepower, Braun remains neck-and-neck with Donnelly. Donnelly is doing some of his advertising.

The real reason this remains a toss-up, though, is spelled with five letters, T-R-U-M-P. Donnelly has desperately tried to localize, Hoosierize, this race for the simple reason that if he can, he will win. People like Joe, I like Joe. People believe Joe has fought for Hoosiers; I believe, and know, that he has. But every day, every hour, nearly every minute, this president manages to dominate all news. Even sports (e.g. the NFL) and weather (e.g. hurricanes). If this race nationalizes, Braun wins.

The Kavanaugh debate has galvanized Republicans. They are now as angry and fired up as the Democrats. How our Senator votes on Kavanaugh may define November’s vote, especially if Kavanaugh is not confirmed. If so, Braun wins.  

On the other hand, that assumes that the president doesn’t tweet or say anything else controversial before November. Does anyone think that won’t happen?

Souder is a former Republican congressman from Indiana.