WESTVILLE, Ind. – Call it the Janus Factor in the Indiana U.S. Senate race. From November of last year through his upset May primary victory over two congressmen, Mike Braun ran one of the most compelling, effective campaigns with legendary optics.
Since his primary victory through Monday night during his first debate with U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, we’ve seen a split personality with the Braun campaign. Gone is the clever and cunning wit we saw with his “two cardboard cutout” ads that skewered Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer. Donnelly and his super PAC allies have created a significant money gap, to the point where it seems like there are two Donnelly ads for every one for Braun. The later Braun ads are duller and industrialized, whereas Donnelly and his allies are carving away the Republican’s credibility on the actions of his companies and on the topic of health care, issues which had worked to Braun’s advantage in the primary.
Then came their first debate, and Donnelly came out swinging. He proclaimed his “decisive vote” on Obamacare and against its repeal in 2017. He explained his vote against Justice Brett Kavanaugh by saying that his vote for Justice Neil Gorsuch came due to his temperament and impartiality, something Kavanaugh acknowledged he lacked during a Wall Street Journal op-ed article published last Thursday.
“Mike was for Judge Kavanaugh on the first day,” Donnelly said at the onset of the debate. “If President Trump put up Bugs Bunny, Mike would put him on the court.” That was the most memorable line of the debate. Braun didn’t register on that front.
Braun responded, “He’s running a campaign of negativity. He was wrong on Iran deal, wrong on health care, wrong about everything, including Judge Kavanaugh.” Braun says Donnelly didn’t vote for Kavanaugh because, “He takes his marching orders from Chuck Schumer.”
Donnelly swung away at Braun over the Pentagon budget and pay increases for the military, and defended his vote against tax reform by saying that Hoosier kids and grandkids will be paying off the $2 trillion deficits in coming generations.
When it came to Donnelly’s bulwark issue – the Republican attack on health coverage for those with pre-existing medical conditions – the two became fully engaged. Braun explained, “I spent 10 years in my own business taking on the whole issue of the high cost of insurance. I did it before Obamacare. I would never be for any replacement of the Affordable Care Act if it didn’t cover pre-existing conditions.”
Donnelly responded, “I stand proudly before you. I was the deciding vote that saved coverage for pre-existing conditions. And Mike, I can hardly believe you stand here and say you’re for pre-existing conditions (coverage).” Donnelly cited Texas v. United States, a lawsuit supported by many congressional Republicans, turning to Braun and saying, “You support it. Say here tonight you denounce it.”
Braun: “You can see he got riled up.”
Donnelly: “You’re darn right I did.”
Braun wouldn’t denounce, responding, “It’s got to last. You can’t solve something without sustaining it. You delivered Obamacare that is falling apart.”
When the dust had settled on the stage, for a second time Braun ducked the post-debate press conference, as he did prior to the primary. “We’ll let the debate speak for itself,” said campaign manager/spokesman Joshua Kelley.
And in this setting, Donnelly was only too happy to oblige. He used Braun’s forfeited post-debate 10 minutes and talked for 21 minutes and 28 seconds. The incumbent used Braun’s void to impress and massage the coverage and narrative.
“I can’t say I’m surprised Mike Braun left, didn’t talk to you,” Donnelly said, looking out at the two dozen reporters and cameramen. “This is a profession I have an incredible amount of respect for. The people of our state have a right to hear the issues and a right to hear questions about the issues. I’m really glad I had this opportunity.”
Donnelly then burnished his points, particularly on health care. “I think what this debate showed was that you can’t trust Mike Braun. You can’t trust him on health care, where he says he’s for coverage of pre-existing conditions, but he supported the Senate bill that would have taken pre-existing coverage away,” Donnelly explained. “He supported the House bill that would have taken pre-existing condition coverage away. He supports the lawsuit, Texas v. United States, which is a dagger aimed at the heart of every family who has a member who has pre-existing conditions. I asked him to renounce that on stage and he refused to do so. At Meyer Distributing, the health care he has, has a deductible of $10,000. Wages are $12 an hour. So you’re making about $23,000 to $24,000. Your deductible is $10,000 before you can get your first prescription. That’s not health care.”
On the “dagger” many believed was aimed at Donnelly’s rejection of the Kavanaugh nomination, the Democrat said, “In regard to Judge Kavanaugh, you saw someone who wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed to apologize for his behavior before the Senate Committee. He apologized for the way he acted. For his lack of judicial temperament, for his lack of impartiality. And three of the tests I have always said from the start, for justices who want to be on the highest court, part of my test was always judicial temperament, impartiality and qualifications. That’s why I support Justice Neil Gorsuch. That’s why if Justice Neil Gorsuch was before us again, I’d be the first one to vote yes. I want to help President Trump with his judicial nominations. That’s why I voted for 77% of them.”
When a reporter pressed Donnelly on whether his aggressive attacks against Braun were a sign of his own vulnerability, he responded, “Hoosiers should conclude what I don’t want to do is see him become their senator and take their health care away. That’s what they should conclude.”
Donnelly mentioned a South Bend family who had triplets born 90 days premature. “They were in the neo-natal intensive care for three months,” he explained. “When they left, they were handed a bill from the hospital: $5 million. Under Mike Braun, they’re out five million and they’re wiped out. He’s not for coverage of pre-existing conditions. He’s not for lifting lifetime caps. He made it clear. That’s what I’m fighting for, those families. They still have their house, their car and the kids are doing phenomenal and the kids are running around all the time and tearing the house apart.”
Two Braun campaigns

The speculation is that during the sequence leading to his primary victory, Braun was relying on the ample expertise of Mark It Red, the Indiana company of Mike Gentry, the driving force behind House Speaker Brian Bosma and the House Republican Campaign Committee.
Since he secured the nomination, sources tell HPI the National Republican Senatorial Committee has been driving the strategy and optics. It’s gradually become the predominant narrative, with the Associated Press reporting on Sept. 19 that “Braun’s own sleepy campaign that’s leaving Republicans underwhelmed — and worried. Groups that typically back GOP candidates, such as the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, are sitting on the sidelines. Braun’s recent three-stop ‘solutions’ tour — spread out across three days — was ridiculed by Democrats, who pointed to Donnelly’s seven-day, 40-stop trek in August. Less than two months until the election, he has yet to purchase air time for October, while Donnelly has outspent him by almost double on TV and radio since June, records show.”
The AP noted that according to a half-dozen GOP officials, operatives and commentators familiar with the race, Braun “appears to be coasting at a time when he ought to be investing more of his own money and rallying the base.” Last week, IndyStar cartoonist Gary Varvel bestowed the Braun campaign with the troubling optic of the missing child on a milk carton.
Several Braun supporters told HPI that they found the Republican nominee wooden during the debate, relying on now well-worn talking points and coming off as somewhat flat. There was no damage, but, perhaps, a missed opportunity.
It’s important to note that Braun is not a dynamite keg like Richard Mourdock and his henchmen. The NRSC assigned handlers to Mourdock and wouldn’t let him do joint appearances. His inclusion in the debates came at the 11th hour. Braun is no such tinderbox. The notion of “Let Braun be Braun” should be operative.
Despite these critiques, on the day after the debate, Braun did pick up the endorsement of the Indiana Manufacturers Association. 
Braun still could win
With the last poll from coming Wednesday with Reuters/Ipsos/UVA Center for Politics showing Donnelly with a showing Donnelly with only a 46-41% lead, and Braun’s voter intensity going up from 66 to 72% (compared to 71% for Donnelly, who had been at 76% in September) in last week’s Fox News Poll, there is still a path for this seat to return to Republicans, who held it for 36 years until Donnelly won the office in 2012. The Reuters poll had a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of 3 percentage points.
As HPI noted in Tuesday’s Atomic! at this point in the campaign, pundits look for tell-tales, both scientific and anecdotal. At the Purdue Northwest campus where the debate took place, the students were on fall break, and the ticketed event quickly reached capacity when announced last summer, but nearly 200 people didn’t show. The Purdue campus is in one of the more Democratic areas in the state, just south of Michigan City. It was just outside of Donnelly’s old congressional district. You might have expected dozens (if not hundreds) of Donnelly partisans showing up to lend their support. But that didn’t happen. Also noteworthy, there were several dozen, mostly women, showing up at an anti-Kavanaugh rally in Fort Wayne Monday. But there were also 50 people who marched in a Right to Life event there on the same day.
So Braun may have an intensity advantage for now. Donnelly campaign spokesman Will Baskin-Gerwitz believes that the Kavanaugh surge won’t last a month. “A month is an eternity,” he said, particularly in the era of President Trump. “We still think health care will be the key issue.”

Donnelly on Trump
Back at the post-debate presser, Donnelly was asked if he risked losing the support to Trump voters, a group he believes he needs to syphon off some support to win. “Look, I’m a workhorse, not a show horse,” he said. “I don’t spend a lot of time bragging about what I do or things to make myself look better by screaming and yelling in Washington.”
Donnelly noted that an opioid crisis bill he authored sits on President Trump’s desk, awaiting his signature. “I expect the president to sign it this week,” Donnelly explained. “It contained my legislation to enable us to have a brief and advanced approval for non-opioid painkillers. Eli Lilly … has been working non-stop on this and they are knocking on the door. What I did was make it so that FDA approval could come sooner. Get it out on the market sooner.”
He went on to explain, “I worked with the VA and Dr. (Surgeon General Jerome) Adams, with the INSPECT Act. We wanted to make sure people could shop around for other doctors. In the 21st Century Cures Act, I was able to get $20 million for our state for addiction treatment and recovery services. The Farm Bill, it is my legislation that sets up an entire telemedicine operation. So you can be in Greene County or Brown County and go to a USDA facility and be able to, right there, skype Methodist Hospital, to Northwestern Hospital in Chicago, to Mayo Clinic, to talk to an addictions doctor for treatment and services.”
There’s Donnelly’s Treatment Addictions Act he is co-sponsoring with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. If medical school graduates agree to work in opioid-crisis areas, they can get their student loans reduced. “If they do six years, they get $1 million knocked off their student loans,” Donnelly explained to the press after the debate. “It’s a win-win. It’s a win for our people and it’s a win for the professionals.”
And on trade, which only came up briefly during the debate, Donnelly was asked if he was being a hypocrite on tariffs, which benefit his United Steelworker allies, but are hammering farmers.
“I don’t think there’s any hypocrisy at all,” Donnelly responded. ”In Indiana, we can do two things at one time. For years now, we heard in northwest Indiana that the Chinese play fair. They don’t. It’s about a $3 to $5 billion silo. We’ve been working on that. We’re making progress. But solving that problem was in no way, shape or form related to then expanding into a $200 billion trade war.
“Let me tell ya, this is a dagger aimed at the heart of Indiana,” Donnelly continued. “We have manufacturers who have come to me, one after another, who are in difficulties because of this. Their costs are so much higher. There’s a barbecue grill maker, and their material costs have gone up 25%. The countries they sell to have imposed a 25% tariff on them. So now they sit with 25% increase coming in, 25% increase going out. So, they’re no longer competitive. We have other countries around our state … company after company after company have told me, ‘I don’t know if we can make it if this continues.’” 
As for farmers, Donnelly said that a recent townhall on a hog farm came just before the family folded its operations. “I check the prices, I check every day,” he said as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “This afternoon the cash price for corn was about $3.25. Soybeans cash price was about $7.90. The cost to grow a bushel of beans is around $9.25. So, you’re at $7.90, and $9.25. They were at $10.80 when this trade war started. Our farmers are hardest hit.
“When Mike Braun was asked about this, he said the farmers are over-dramatizing this,” Donnelly charged. “It is not an over-dramatization when it’s your family at your kitchen table and you did everything right, everything.”
So here in Indiana, candidates must do at least two things at once: Campaign and debate. The three candidates are scheduled for a second debate on Oct. 30 at WFYI-TV in Indianapolis. Horse Race Status: Tossup.