SULLIVAN, Ind. — Mike Braun faces two opponents in his self-financed quest to unseat Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly. While speaking to dozens of Republicans at a Lincoln Day dinner, however, he quickly trains his fire on another foe: Washington.
“Too many people go there, they get involved, and they become a member of the swamp, and they forget where they came from,” he said in this farm town. “You’ve got my guarantee. At my stage of the game, I’m doing it because I’m fed up with business as usual. And I’m not going to be beholden to anyone.”
Even though Republicans control all levers of government, GOP candidates are running against Washington, echoing President Trump’s constant attacks on the capital.
Braun’s argument is an implicit critique of the two congressmen he’s facing and an example of how wealthy outsiders continue to upend Republican politics two years after Trump gave the GOP the ultimate shake-up.
Should Braun, a former state lawmaker who owns a growing logistics business, emerge victorious in Tuesday’s primary, or if onetime coal executive Don Blankenship triumphs in West Virginia’s U.S. Senate primary, it would send a demoralizing message to any ambitious congressional Republican: You can vote with Trump every time, you can wear a “Make America Great Again” hat in your commercials, you can sleep on a cot in your office to prove you haven’t gone Washington, but it doesn’t matter — voters prefer the outsider.
These candidates are seizing on obstructions to Trump’s health-care, trade and immigration agenda — from Democrats, some Republicans, the courts, the media and others — to rally voters to “drain the swamp” anew.
“He ran on building the wall, and people are waiting for the man that’s going to go to Congress and actually give the funding to the president to build the wall,” said Shawn Carruthers, who chairs the Floyd County Republican Party in southern Indiana. “They say, ‘How can we control both houses of Congress and the presidency and still not get the president’s agenda done?’ ”
Polling shows that Republicans in general have a dimmer view of their own party than Democrats — even though, by any standard, the GOP has been more successful in recent years at winning elections.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll last fall asked voters how much they blamed each party for the political dysfunction in the country. For Democrats, a year after a stunning presidential loss, 80 percent leveled at least some blame on their own party. But among Republicans, with their party in power, 87 percent said the GOP was at least partially to blame — and 98 percent blamed members of Congress.
The allure of the outsider carries sharp implications for GOP congressional majorities.
Party officials are afraid that a win by Blankenship, who was convicted of conspiring to violate mine safety violations after an explosion killed 29 miners in 2010 and who has run a scorched-earth campaign against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), could snuff out their chances of ousting Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III. They have moved aggressively against him, spending millions on last-minute attack ads.
There is less anxiety in Washington about Braun, who is a relative outsider but not an iconoclast. He has trained most of his attacks on his primary opponents, not on McConnell, and he offers careful answers when asked sharp questions that could split the GOP base from the congressional leadership.
Braun’s trajectory is not unfamiliar. He follows other business executives who had self-funded political runs — Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.) and David Perdue (Ga.) among them. But none has shaken up a seemingly predictable race so completely.
By last fall, Rep. Luke Messer had emerged as the establishment favorite, an amiable team player who worked his way from Indiana’s State House to Congress and stood ready to run a tried-and-true GOP playbook. Rep. Todd Rokita embraced an image as a stalwart Trump ally and political brawler whose all-elbows approach rubbed some insiders the wrong way but made him a darling of the conservative base.
Braun stormed into the race in December, loaning his campaign $5.35 million to finance an early ad blitz, building up his outsider image and painting Messer and Rokita as the House’s Tweedledee and Tweedledum, two indistinguishable swamp dwellers.
He burnished that narrative with canny TV ads — one featuring Braun walking the streets of his home town of Jasper, Ind., with cardboard cutouts of Messer and Rokita and daring his neighbors to tell them apart. More recently, his campaign has called them the “swamp brothers.”
There is little reliable polling, but several Indiana Republicans said Braun appears to be surging thanks to his early spending and his compelling message.
J. Lee McNeely, a Republican lawyer active in Indiana politics who is supporting Messer, said the race “is much closer than we ever expected” thanks to Braun.
“I think some of us, myself included, might have been asleep at the switch,” he said. “To some extent, if you’ve been a good, loyal Republican like Luke has, that doesn’t necessarily redound to his benefit.”
In other races across the country, even candidates who are already serving in Congress or have well-documented Washington ties are making sometimes awkward attempts to paint themselves as outsiders.
One of Blankenship’s GOP rivals, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, dropped a mountain on top of the U.S. Capitol in his first ad and regularly says he wants to “blow up” Washington.
He rarely mentions that he worked for years as a congressional aide, before a career as a federal lobbyist, largely for health-care and pharmaceutical companies. He moved to West Virginia in 2006 after running unsuccessfully for Congress in New Jersey.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who is seeking to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Bob Corker, has served in Washington for 15 years and opened her campaign by complaining that the U.S. Senate was “totally dysfunctional, and it’s enough to drive you nuts.”
Scott, who was courted to run for the Senate by the White House, launched his campaign by saying he “won’t fit in in Washington” and that “it’s time to shake the place up.” And Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who was elected to Congress in 2014, launched her Senate campaign by saying she is “tired of PC politicians and their BS excuses.”
Blankenship, meanwhile, has refocused his television advertising effort in the closing weeks to contrast his style against his more polished rivals, Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins.
Blankenship’s ads play up his outsider status with plain production values, a deadpan delivery and his jarring use of phrases such as “swamp people” and “China people,” attacks directed at McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, and his in-laws.
Campaign manager Greg Thomas said Blankenship is trying to close the campaign with a simple argument: West Virginian voters have a choice between two career politicians and a businessman who would “send a message” to Washington.
“The reality is, they all look the same,” he said about his rivals’ political ads. “And then Don comes on the screen, and it makes you watch it.”
Braun’s closing-argument ad is considerably more conventional: “Politics shouldn’t be a career,” he says while walking across the floor of one of his warehouses. “We need folks with real-world experience who get the job done and come back home.”
In an interview, Braun said he did not believe his campaign would have been possible four years ago, before Trump cleared a field of more than a dozen established Republicans to win the GOP nomination and then the presidency.
“It was just a graphic example of what you can do at the highest level of pursuit in politics,” he said. “Look at the barrage he took and how he was dismissed all the way.”
Braun’s policy positions are not entirely those of a hard-liner. He speaks frequently of the need to improve the nation’s infrastructure and defends his statehouse vote to hike gas taxes to build roads. He’s unapologetic about voting in Democratic primaries for three decades, calling himself a “lifelong conservative” who pulled a Democratic ballot to weigh in on local races.
In interviews, Messer and Rokita acknowledged that Braun has created a close and unpredictable race. Both said their years in state politics and meticulous ground games would pay off — and both spent time attacking Braun for his past votes in Democratic primaries and his short history in GOP politics.
“If Mike Braun is outside anything, he’s outside the Republican Party,” Messer said. “He’s not someone that conservative Hoosiers can trust to represent our values in Washington. The question is, can he buy his way around that? We’ll see.”
Rokita, meanwhile, has been playing what he calls “smash-mouth football” — rarely passing up an opportunity to attack Messer, Braun, Democrats or the media. He’s attacked Messer as a “never Trumper,” Braun as a closet Democrat and touted the support of the Trump campaign’s leaders in the state — though not Trump himself. The president’s campaign ordered Rokita to stop distributing yard signs that left the impression that Rokita had Trump’s endorsement.
He has, by design, not apologized for that move or any other during a campaign whose theme is “defeat the elite.”
“People want a fighter,” he said, adding that voters preferred Trump “because he was angry at the system. Mike Braun is the system. He’s not angry at stuff. He’s just running around saying he’s an outsider. There’s a difference. . . . I’m angry, too, angry in the best sense of that word.”
Braun, meanwhile, said he’s not fazed by the attacks. “When you’ve got two guys that couldn’t get along for most of their history, when they start holding hands and coming at you, that must mean something,” he said.
Scherer reported from Washington.