INDIANAPOLIS – Senate rules require a coat and tie on the floor, so that’s one change facing Sen.-elect Mike Braun when he arrives at the Capitol in January.
His campaign trail trademark was a blue shirt. He used it to contrast himself with tie-bound U.S. Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita in their first debate last winter. How many blue shirts did Braun end up with in his victorious races against the congressmen and then Sen. Joe Donnelly?
“Several now,” Braun said as we talked in a backroom at Shapiro’s Deli on Tuesday. He was there to greet supporters, surrounded by his emerging staff that includes campaign manager Joshua Kelley, who will be his chief of staff; Jasper Mayor Terry Seitz, who comes in as outreach director; Jason Johnson as state director; Katie Bailey as legislative director; and Jahan Wilcox at communications.
Braun emerged in late summer 2017 as the “outsider businessman,” invested more than $5 million in the primary race, more than $11 million before the last shrill TV ad aired on Nov. 6, and upset Sen. Donnelly by 5%. HPI listed the race as a tossup, but with President Trump and Vice President Pence coming into the state in the homestretch, their brand and Donnelly’s vote against the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh put him over the top.
“Mike was closing the gap all along,” said Kelley, who had run campaigns for Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch and 2016 Senate candidate Marlin Stutzman before he signed on with Braun. “Sen. Donnelly started out in a strong position and there’s a reason why incumbents win 90% of the time. But we felt we were ticking along on that trajectory. The thing that always gave us great confidence was that in whatever poll that was out there, Sen. Donnelly was never higher than 43 to 45%. We knew that the remaining chunk of undecided voters, Republicans, independents and conservative-leaning voters who hadn’t made up their minds, were likely to come our way.”
Braun believes that the Kavanaugh issue hurt Donnelly. “I think we would have won the election anyway,” Braun said. “It wouldn’t have been with as wide a margin.”
Kelley said that the Kavanaugh hearing with accuser Karen Blasey Ford just sped up their process. “It escalated what we saw was trending internally. We felt it was coming our way, but escalated it several weeks in advance. We could see the enthusiasm rise. It fired up our base. We probably raised the most money online, outside of those last few days, in those 72 to 96 hours after the Kavanaugh vote.”
Donnelly became exposed, Braun and Kelley believe, with Kelley saying, “Indiana is a right-leaning state and that really put him on display on what was at stake. Are you with the radical left that was dragging Kavanaugh through the mud? When he chose to side with that obstructionist, radical wing and his party, that really clarified things with Hoosiers.”
Some progressive Democrats were upset with Donnelly over his late TV ad where he vowed to fund President Trump’s border wall while separating from the most liberal wing of the party. But Kelley said Donnelly’s base held steady, yet more Republicans turned out and came home. “I don’t think our polling showed he had problems with his base,” Kelley said. “To us that indicated a sign of desperation.”
The other telltale was Donnelly’s aggression in the two debates, where he challenged Braun on his stance on preexisting conditions and whether he backed the Texas lawsuit that would end such coverage. “Joe Donnelly’s demeanor in those debates told us he was seeing similar numbers that we were,” Kelley explained. “He became very aggressive. It’s a situation where if you’re the incumbent, if you’re in a winning position, you’re going to take a more measured approach. That aggressive approach proved to a lot of people that Mike could really back up what they were seeing in the TV ads, that he was unflappable, and reinforced that argument during the campaign that it was time for a change.”
Braun called health care “the issue I ran on to distinguish myself from other conservatives, and I said it early, you should never go broke if you get sick or have a bad accident, you have to cover preexisting conditions, and no cap on coverage. I don’t think it made it through because a lot of people thought it was political mumbo-jumbo that I couldn’t back up once I got elected.”
Kelley was asked about the primary campaign TV ads against Messer and Rokita – the twin cardboard cutouts – that were some of the most effective ever seen in the state, and the different tenor of the fall campaign against Donnelly. “When you look at the dynamic we had in the primary, ideologically there weren’t a lot of differences between three relatively conservative guys with similar backgrounds,” he said. “We had to find opportunities to draw a contrast that were a little different than people were used to. Whereas in the general election it really becomes more of a red v. blue question about Joe Donnelly’s record and not being in touch with Hoosiers.”
Braun also benefited from a GOP hitting on all cylinders. “We had such great support in the state from Gov. Holcomb and Chairman Hupfer. The day after the primary, the whole statewide structure was locked down and focused on a single goal. The president was in town. It was something I haven’t seen before. Just in my time, I haven’t seen a state party come even close to what they pulled off. It was just an unprecedented effort of marshaling resources and solely focused on a goal. They contacted hundreds of thousands of voters.”
“It’s been a misnomer that the Democrats had a better ground game,” Kelley said. “I think we created a cycle, with the right candidate and with the right people at the helm of the various organizations, our state party leadership, they went out and made hundreds of thousands of voter contacts. It’s just amazing. If this was going to be a close race, I always felt confident we were going to squeak out that extra 25,000 to 50,000 votes statewide because we had the superior ground game.”
That was conspicuous in rural Indiana where Braun carried dozens of counties with 65 to 75% of the vote. Braun said, “Joe’s voting record was what did him in.” He also believes his “real world experience” got “above the clutter a little bit and most voters could see a difference.” 

Here is our HPI Interview with Sen.-elect Braun:
HPI: You just found that opening and crease in the primary that Reps. Rokita and Messer didn’t have.
Braun: I think for a lot of people ... it had never happened before in this state for the U.S. Senate, or someone from the outside who ran the gauntlet and made it. I think there will be more in the future. I think that was reflected in President Trump’s margin. Hoosiers wanted something different than business as usual. They were willing to put up with some disruption along the way. I might be wondering if there was too much of that chaos that would come with it. I think that was all a matter of discussion. It was because government had not been delivering for a long time good results in D.C. to address problems. Places like Indiana have run a state government with a lot more raw functionality, doing the things you need to do to live another day to be able to try something else with balanced budgets and cash balances, and tackling some things and not trying to do everything. Run it with accountability.
HPI: Sen. Donnelly kept saying he backed Trump 62% of the time. After the election, it became obvious that a majority of Hoosiers want that to be in the 95 to 100% range.
Braun: Hoosiers were wanting him to be behind them on important issues. In his defense, he was in a tough spot on all of them because then he would be bucking Chuck Schumer and leadership. So those statistics are very, very tricky, because in our state government, Democrats and Republicans both vote over 90% together. A lot of it is technical stuff. On the important stuff, when it came to something related to education or you remember infrastructure, obviously we parted company, even when it was a good idea. I was always amused when state Democrats, none of them other than one or two, voted for the road funding bill, when that would have been their ideal piece of legislation until it was rolled out by Republicans. So that’s mild compared to the dynamic out in D.C. So when it came to all the important topics, tax reform, health care, I don’t think he had much latitude, including the Kavanaugh vote.
HPI: Was the Kavanaugh confirmation vote the decisive turn of events?
Braun: I think we would have won the election anyway. It wouldn’t have been with as wide a margin. Where Gorsuch was the first, the first judge replacing Scalia, that was different. Chuck Schumer knew that was going to get across the finish line, so he allowed Heitkamp, Donnelly, Manchin to vote for Gorsuch. This was different. This was going to be the balance of the court. The whole proceedings in its rawness, really was shocking to many Hoosiers. Before then it was really neck and neck. We could measurably feel the difference not only from the polling we were doing, but the number of small contributions that came in. There was a big difference once Joe said he was going to vote against Kavanaugh. Then he was going to reconsider for a few days and then came back and said no. That was a big deal. I still think we would have won, but not with the margin we did.
HPI: I didn’t ever see the Kavanaugh confirmation getting derailed. The Republicans had the votes. Dianne Feinstein just made a bad bet.
Braun: I think they did. They gambled, too, on tax reform. Now we’ve had a year of it and that’s not an issue you hear them talk as much anymore because it’s been a year of better withholding. It’s not crumbs; it’s $1,500 and $2,000. Many companies like mine have taken tax reform ... are sending less money to the federal government and that’s great because they never deliver anything in return. But let’s start sharing those benefits, if you can, with your employees so they don’t look to government to solve problems. We gave two mid-year bonuses and I don’t know if you remember, we lowered health care costs by $1,400.
HPI: Oh yes, I remember.
Braun: I don’t even think they thought it was true. It was like how can you do that? I also took on the health insurance companies 10 years ago and got a system that’s sustainable, that’s affordable, that lowered costs, covers preexisting conditions and no cap on coverage.
HPI: Did all the “China Mike” and “Mexico Joe” stuff work? I don’t think those issues decided the election. A lot of people found all that stuff irritating and they also felt it was unfair to your company, one of the flagship enterprises in Jasper. It got pulled through the mud.
Braun: Anybody in my hometown and home county knew that was nonsense. I lived there, was born there, and other than two years out East, have been there. They got hurt by that. They knew it was 90% lies and the rest distortions, but you know the game of politics, if you have any personal peccadillo ... I was in luck there. Then they turn to your business. All I can tell you is I never heard an ill word about my business until I ran for Senate. I mean, wow, zero. It’s the lowest unemployment county in the state. We actually do well attracting people to work there. Some of that stuff that was trotted out was just crazy. I knew it was coming. I knew that was the way campaigns were litigated. The negatives we directed against Joe Donnelly was on his voting record. He did have involvement in a company, hadn’t worked there in a while and was a part owner, but you can see there he paid the extreme price because it did send jobs to Mexico, and other companies did the same, but that all gets blown up into a major production. I think a lot of people did get sick and tired of it, on both sides.
HPI: Sen. Donnelly worked rural Indiana hard during his terms in office. His staff was respected on issues impacting rural Indiana. 
Braun: It was because of his voting record.
HPI: You carried dozens of rural counties with between 65 and 75% of the vote. 
Braun: I think I did that more effectively. I always look at what you’ve done throughout your life before you try to do something new. That’s the only thing that’s out there on the record that kind of gives an indication on what you’re going to be doing next. Joe’s voting record was what did him in. He never could turn the fact that he was a nice individual who didn’t tee anybody off while at the time he was in politics. He had that going for him and not many politicians can do, but when it came down to sell Hoosiers that he was going to understand agriculture, really do something about health care costs, know something about infrastructure, I think that’s where my real world experience got above the clutter a little bit and most voters could see  a difference.
HPI: We had President Trump’s tariff issues playing out right in the heart of the campaign, and yet you hung in there. The farmers I talk to believe the president has a long-term plan, they’re sticking with him even though they were taking some hits. Was the tariff impact a problem for you at all?
Braun: I think I heard more about it from business owners than I did from farmers. Farmers had the most reason to complain about it because the Chinese are smart. Who did they aim the tariffs at? President Trump’s most loyal political group. They like what he was doing in general but then they had to fight through the fact that their business has been challenging for three, four or five years due to low commodity prices. This even took soybeans down to a new low. They did not want any government help because they’ve been mostly weaned from that over the last several years. It was difficult. They hung with him. Most of them did.
HPI: Still are.
Braun: Yes, they still are. The help that was given through soybean subsidy was not as important in the fact that they had faith this was going to work out. What has happened with Canada, Mexico and the E.U. ... there’s been a discussion and I don’t know how many details have been worked out, but they came around several months ago. China was digging in and slapping counter tariffs out there. Of course, the Chinese have run out of things do tariff now.
HPI: The Chinese are starting to get a little nervous.
Braun: It’s about a four-to-one ratio on imports and exports. They rely on them more than we do. Now they’ve come to the table and said, “We want to talk about it.” Whether that’s going to happen or not, who knows. There the main issues is down the road, and I’ve said it publicly, if tariffs don’t fix it and get it to where you solve the issues with China, you’re going to start hurting too many parts of the economy. There are other ways you made the peace with Mexico, Canada and the E.U. and you surround your wagons to force China through everybody being on the same page to change your behavior, stealing intellectual property, subsidizing key industries, manipulating currencies, all the things they do that nobody else does.

HPI: You had the president in Evansville in late August and then the two late MAGA rallies ...

Braun: Southport on Friday and Fort Wayne ...

HPI: When Mark Souder and I were making our final forecast, we saw those rallies and the strength of the Trump brand and yet we saw the Fox and NBC/Marist Polls that showed Donnelly leading ...

Braun: Where were you guys? (laughs).
HPI: We knew the state pretty well and knew the Trump brand was strong. Did that seal the deal for you?
Braun: There’s no doubt his coming in, as he did in Missouri as well, and it’s ironic that we both ended up winning by the same margins. We were both by the touters expected to lose in a close race or in a tossup at best. I think that along with the fact that I ran as an outsider; somebody who was coming from a different pathway than most politicians, the Kavanaugh hearings, it all took it to a 6- to 7-point margin early in the evening; high single digit plus until the urban counties came in late in the evening. All of that combined to give us a surprisingly wide margin of victory.
HPI: So you ran your campaign talking about how you handled health care for Meyer Distributing, and lo and behold on Friday, a federal judge in Texas strikes down Obamacare. So you have your work cut out for you when you get to Washington.
Braun: If there was one issue I ran on to distinguish myself from other conservatives, and I said it early, you should never go broke if you get sick or have a bad accident, you have to cover preexisting conditions, and no cap on coverage. I don’t think it made it through because a lot of people thought it was political mumbo-jumbo that I couldn’t back up once I got elected. I did it in my own business and this is kind of the formal nail in the Obamacare coffin because it didn’t work. It was big health care and big health insurance in cahoots of big government, and never have I seen that work. It now, whether this is the official constitutional demise ... I don’t think it makes that much difference. The American public wants you to cover preexisting conditions, no cap on coverage, keep their kids on insurance or have the option to do it until they’re 26. Now we have to do what it never addressed, which is how do you lower the costs? That’s not going to happen in big government until the health care industry gets more like most other industries, where it is transparent. They shrink themselves because they become more efficient and they don’t want to do that naturally, and to me, this is in the hands of the health care industry or else it will just keep moving progressively to a one-payer system.
HPI: When you got to Indianapolis and the Indiana House, you were a self-described impatient freshman. Can you claim the same mantle in Washington? Can you elbow some of the longer serving senators and say I’ve been there/done that, I’ve impacted my business and become a significant voice on that issue as a freshman?
Braun: I got a bill passed, the regional infrastructure that I was told by my mentors, Tim Brown and Ed Soliday, it would take two or three years. I listened and then I decided to do it in one session, and we did it, Sen. Messmer and I. We got that teed up in our neighborhood. We’ve raised the money privately and local governments do the same and we’ve got a road project number and we’re on the radar for that bypass and now regional corridor. I’m going to take that same kind of I-know-it-can-be done and not accept the inertia and status quo and see if it might work there. I know if it doesn’t, the federal government is going to be even lower in its stock value than the 15% approval rating and there might be more people like me who get in there and aren’t worried about getting reelected and make real change.
HPI: Have Sen. McConnell or Sen. Young pulled you aside and said be careful?
Braun: They know I’m smart enough to know you’ve got to pick your battles and not solve the world’s problems because you’re there. You’ve got to remember you’ve got a guy like Rick Scott, Mitt Romney from Utah ... we’ve got five business people in the Senate. I spent two and a half days with Mitt Romney because he was in on freshman orientation.
HPI: So will you be working with Sen. Romney?
Braun: Yeah, I think he comes from a different pathway from the corporate world and I’m a Main Street entrepreneur. I think Main Street entrepreneurs may have a better understanding of how all this stuff works.
HPI: Anybody else in the Senate fit that profile?
Braun: Currently? 
HPI: Yeah.
Braun: I don’t know. David Perdue from Georgia is a business guy and Ron Johnson from Wisconsin. I think they’d be somewhat like that.
HPI: How many blue shirts do you have now?
Braun: Several now.
HPI: Did you ever wear anything but a blue shirt?
Braun: Nope. It became my brand after that first debate because I refused to put on a tie and wear a sport coat. 
HPI: Good luck in Washington.
Braun: I’ll try to get on committees that weigh in on infrastructure, weigh in on health care, bring some sanity to our budget process and agriculture. It’s a big industry in Indiana and Donnelly was on it. So, hopefully that will all fall in place.