Businessman Mike Braun won the Republican Senate primary in Indiana on Tuesday, defeating a pair of U.S. congressmen he branded as “swamp creatures” along the way. With 75 percent of precincts reporting, Braun led Rep. Luke Messer by roughly 11 points and Rep. Todd Rokita by 12.
Braun will now face Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in the general election in a state Donald Trump won by 19 points in 2016.
Braun, a former state lawmaker, came out of nowhere to surprise Messer and Rokita, long-time political rivals who began the year as co-favorites. Braun found success with a buzzy campaign ad in which he carried around life-sized cardboard cutouts of the two congressman, asking voters if they could tell the difference between the two. (Spoiler: They could not.) Braun also was helped by the millions of his own money that he loaned or gave to his campaign, which allowed him to easily outspend both of his rivals.
Unlike some other GOP Senate primaries on Tuesday, the White House stayed out of this intra-party contest, which turned so nasty that one Republican National Committee official began to worry aloud that it doubled as free opposition research for Donnelly and his team. Rokita and Messer hit Braun for his past votes in Democratic primaries, including in 2008 when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were both running. They also highlighted his 2017 vote in the state Legislature to raise Indiana fuel taxes.
While the three candidates took aim at one another, they each professed their love for the president. Braun aired an ad saying that he was running “because President Trump paved the way.” Rokita proudly put on a Make America Great Again hat in one of his spots. And Messer, who also name-dropped Trump in his ads, claimed to be working to nominate Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize. Trump was ready to repay the favors even before the nomination was settled. Last week, Trump’s re-election campaign announced that he and Pence would travel to Indiana on Thursday for a rally to remind voters of the importance of “replacing Senator Joe Donnelly with our GOP nominee.”
The seat is one of the GOP’s best pick-up opportunities this fall. Donnelly got a gift six years ago on his way to winning his first term when his GOP opponent declared on a debate stage that a woman who gets impregnated by her rapist is carrying a “gift from God,” and therefore should not be allowed to have an abortion. Two weeks later, Donnelly won his race by 6 percentage points on the same day Mitt Romney won the state by 10 points. He’ll have a more difficult go this time around and has already begun talking up his own agreement with Trump on some issues.