By BRIAN A. HOWEY

KOKOMO – In the span of five days the U.S. Senate campaign came here to the City of Firsts. Republican Mike Braun spoke to business folks at a Rotary Club meeting in a country club. Democrat Sen. Joe Donnelly talked to a small gathering of auto workers at a UAW hall on Friday.

These were late summer ramblings in a race that could determine control of the U.S. Senate, with future Supreme Court nominees and President Trump’s agenda, or, possibly, the fate of his presidency hanging in the balance.

This race is a tossup in the estimation of Howey Politics Indiana, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales. It could go either way, with at least $100 million expected to spill in. Braun expects $10 million to be spent by his and the Donnelly campaign each, with another $35 million to $40 million and likely more to come from Super PACs and advocacy groups.

“If he can recreate the outsider vs. politician narrative along partisan lines, Braun will be in good shape,” wrote Gonzales, a Huntington, Ind., native. “But if it’s a personality contest, Donnelly should win reelection.”

“I’m going to spend 10 minutes talking about the U.S. Senate and what I’ll do when I get there,” Braun told about 30 Rotarians. “What I get asked most often is, ‘Why are you doing it?’ My answer, very simply, is that I was on a school board for 10 years in Jasper. Schools boards are the place where you’ll know if you have the temperament to interface with the public.”

Hoosier U.S. senators have come from the U.S. House (Dan Coats, Dan Quayle, Todd Young and Donnelly) or were mayors (Richard Lugar and Vance Hartke), the General Assembly (Birch Bayh) or the governor’s office (Evan Bayh). If elected, Braun would be the third school board member (Sen. Donnelly was president of the Mishawaka Marian board) and second legislator to climb that ladder in the television age of Indiana politics, joining Lugar and the elder Bayh.

Braun’s pitch was that he went to the General Assembly and worked on big things as a freshman. “I passed a bill because in my area, we had bad road infrastructure. I had the idea that rather than relying on Indianapolis, we’re going to try and initiate our own road funds,” Braun said. “I’ll never forget Chairman Tim Brown and Chairman Ed Soliday … told me, ‘Mike, this is an ambitious project. You need to do your research and it will take two to three years to get it across the finish line.’ One thing you learn as an entrepreneur is you always listen to everyone, take the advice and then run with the best you’ve got.

“I didn’t have the patience to wait two to three years,” Braun said. “Don’t always ask something to be done for you. Put your own skin in the game, initiate, and control your own destiny as the result of it. We got that thing through, Sen. (Mark) Messmer and I, in one year. We were told to do it in one chamber, not both. We respectfully listened, and then did it in both.

“I’m doing this,” Braun said of this race, “just like I went there, with the focus and purpose. I don’t believe we send the cream of the crop to Washington, D.C. I think we send people there who talk a big game, go there, NS end up making a career in politics. The Founders never intended it to be that way. They did this with the idea that people would be anxious to get back to the farm. When I go there, I’m going to focus on infrastructure, because it’s falling apart across the country. Republicans and Democrats ought to be able to agree on that.”

Donnelly’s skin in the game

Donnelly’s pitch to the UAW came, literally, with a story of family skin in the game.

“I have two Jeeps,” the senator said. “Two Grand Cherokees. My daughter was heading off when she was a senior in high school to go watch a movie with friends. I was half asleep on a Friday night when she said, ‘I’m heading out, Dad.’ We had a compact car, but I looked up and said, ‘Take the Jeep. I’d feel much safer if you took the Jeep.’ It was Good Friday. I get a phone call about two hours later and it was my daughter. She had been hit head-on by a drunk driver. The airbags went off, the car was crumpled. The policeman said, ‘It’s a miracle your daughter wasn’t killed.’ It was a miracle, but it was also a Jeep Grand Cherokee that you made, you built. Every time I see her, I think of Rick Ward.”

Ward is the president of UAW Local 685. “As long as I’m a United States senator,” Donnelly said, “I’m going to fight for you.”

Donnelly played a big advocacy role with President Obama in 2009. Running for reelection in 2010, he found some UAW workers at the Chrysler plant gate wouldn’t look him in the eye. Some would vote Republican on the issue of guns or abortion. Donnelly told HPI in his RV on the way from Zionsville to Kokomo, “One guy at the gate said, ‘I love you, Joe, I’m not voting for ya, but I love ya.’”

Donnelly laughed. “And I said, ‘This could be a rough Tuesday.’” But he narrowly fended off State Rep. Jackie Walorski, and then in his upset Senate race against Treasurer Richard Mourdock two years later, he found strong support from the UAW. “Those folks have been incredibly kind to me,” Donnelly said. “In 2012, I won the 5th Congressional District – and that is Kokomo, that’s Marion, that’s Anderson, those cities and a good group of union folks and others who are salt of the earth – and I was blessed to have their support and win that district.”

Business and emotion

Braun’s pitch to voters is with a business-like, matter-of-fact and status-quo challenging demeanor, with the tenor of a curmudgeon. He explains things well.

Donnelly brings more emotion into his pitch, constantly reminding his audience and reporters that “my job” is to work for 6.5 million Hoosier bosses. He bends the normal arc for a Democrat. He’s pro-life, voted for Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, and he’d vote for President Trump’s wall. “I’m fine with providing him some more,” Donnelly told Politico. “I actually voted for border wall funding three different times. I’m fine with that. I’m fine with $3 [billion], $3.5, $4 or $5 billion this fall.”

His appeal to this small group of autoworkers was that he was there for them in 2008 and 2009. “I’ll never forget coming to this union hall when the treasurer of Indiana tried to get Chrysler liquidated,” Donnelly said of Mourdock. “All of us thought we had no chance to win. But we fought it as one team and it went to the Supreme Court of the United States. We heard they weren’t going to take the case, so I made two calls to here, and said, ‘We won.’”

The Chrysler transmission plants in Kokomo had employed 5,000 people when the auto collapse approached in 2008 and 2009. It shrank to 100 as President Obama forced the restructuring, allowing Fiat to absorb Chrysler. Today, there are 9,000 Hoosiers working there. “My job is to fight for your job,” Donnelly said at Local 685. “I told Mayor Goodnight, Plan A is to try and get everybody back to work. Plan B is to go to church and pray that Plan A works.”

“You build the best products in the world,” Donnelly said. “We need to make sure we have everybody’s backs.”

Key issues

In addition to the $100 million likely to spill in, the Donnelly-Braun showdown will be fought over the several key issues. There’s Obamacare and what Donnelly calls the “sabotage” of the ACA, while Braun says his “real world” business experience gives him the tools to actually craft a market-based plan that will work. “I could walk into that Senate and probably know more about what to do than anybody that’s there,” Braun told me as we drove from Kokomo to Delphi.

There is the Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh confirmation battle. Braun says Donnelly is in a classic “Catch 22” because either way he votes, “It’s going to look like a political calculation.” Donnelly vows to do his due diligence, explaining, “My job isn’t to rush a decision. This is someone who’s going to be there for decades and my job is to make the right decision; that’s what I’m trying to do.”

And there’s the tax reforms of 2017. Donnelly claims that the middle class is being ripped off, with more than 70% of the benefits going to the very wealthy while deficits and debt are exploding into the trillion-dollar range. Braun believes there hasn’t been enough time to accurately gauge the impacts. “If economic growth stays closer to 3% or a little above or even a little below, that’s a helluva lot better than 1.3% or 1.5% where you’re never going to go anywhere with that,” Braun said, believing that the current estimates of $1.5 trillion in deficits over the coming decade will eventually become “revenue neutral.”

Braun believes he is carrying a “positive” message, decrying Donnelly and the Super PACs for targeting his business, Meyer Industries, with “lies.” Donnelly emphasizes his work for his Hoosier “bosses” and claims he’s not beholden to presidents and special interests.

Then there is President Trump, who suggested over the weekend that the mid-terms should be a referendum on his first two years, adding there will be a “red wave” that will swamp Donnelly. Trump’s tariffs have put Hoosier farmers and manufacturers using steel and aluminum in the crosshairs. Donnelly said he brought up the tariffs to President Trump in the Oval Office a month ago. “I said, ‘Mr. President, the price these guys get is less than the price it costs them to put it in the field. Those numbers just don’t work. They had your back and we need to get this fixed.’ He said, ‘Well, you know, I think it’s going great.’ I said, ‘Well, not if you’re a farmer in Indiana.’”

Braun believes that Trump is playing the “long game” to rectify trade patterns that were instituted after World War II decades ago. “I’m hoping, and I believe, President Trump and those who are working with him hope it ends up addressing these baked-in problems without causing too much grief along the way,” Braun said.

The obvious wildcard also aligns with President Trump, with the Russian collusion investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller throbbing just below the surface. Neither Donnelly or Braun can forecast how this could course through their campaigns or what the potential impacts could be.

There is little doubt, however, that this is a pure tossup, with the eyes of the nation trained once again on Indiana, which President Trump described in 2016 as “Importantville.”

It is home to the most important U.S. Senate election this cycle. HPI Horse Race: Tossup.