For the third time in six years, Hoosier Republicans face a critical decision, which is to choose a U.S. Senate nominee. Over the past six years, these voters have batted .500.
In 2012, they chose Richard Mourdock over U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, who not only held this Senate seat for 36 years, but was Indiana’s all-time leading vote-getter. A plethora of Mourdock blunders after his landslide primary win booted this safe Republican seat to U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly. In 2016, Republicans chose Todd Young, and he did what was almost unfathomable, which was to drub former senator and governor Evan Bayh.
There are six candidates in the current field, with U.S. Reps. Luke Messer, Todd Rokita and former legislator Mike Braun from Jasper the leading contenders. The conventional wisdom was this was a race between the two congressmen. But an Economist/You Gov Poll this week reveals congressional approval at 9 percent. On Wednesday, we learned that Braun posted $2.3 million cash on hand with $2 million raised in the fourth quarter, including about $1.75 million of his own money. Messer reported $430,000 raised and $2.4 million in cash. Rokita posted $459,000 in his 4th Quarter FEC report and has $2.4 million cash on hand.
All of this suggests that this is truly a three-man, wide open, tossup race. With his personal wealth, Braun has run three flights of statewide TV to gin up his name ID, while the congressmen have been dark. Rokita financier Dan Dumezich believes Rokita is the “frontrunner,” explaining, “Not only has Todd run statewide twice, in 2006 which was a Democratic wave year he still led the ticket.”
At the Republican Congress of Counties last month, Braun positioned himself as an “outsider” businessman and told me, “I’m coming from a different channel. I’m not coming from the political world, other than three years” in the Indiana House. “Nobody has ever tried on the Senate level to come from the business side, outside of politics. They’ve gone through the feeder system that’s given (Congress) a 20 percent approval rating.”
Braun calls himself a “disrupter,” saying of his world view, “I’ve been in the trenches building a business, not through the lens of a politician. There’s never been a better time for the party to have one pathway versus the other.”
The health insurance prism is a good example to delineate the difference between Braun and the congressmen. Rokita and Messer were both vociferous critics of Obamacare, both voting 60 times to repeal while President Obama was in office.
With President Trump and Republican majorities, they attempted to “repeal and replace” in 2017. It did pass the House, but failed in the Senate. Why? Because it was a half-baked proposal slapped together in a matter of weeks that would have thrown millions of people off coverage and jeopardized the successful Healthy Indiana Plan which covers nearly a half million Hoosiers. Those of us who don’t qualify for Obamacare subsidies have seen our premiums skyrocket.
In essence, House Republicans talked a big game, but when it came time to lead, they became windbags.
And Braun? As a businessman, he figured out a way to lower premiums for his employees. “What the insurance companies want to sell you is based on high premiums which have no co-pays, which have no skin in the game,” he explained. “When you have no skin in the game, that’s the classic underpinning of conservative philosophy. You’ve got to feel some pain in your decisions. In health care, early on it was an affordable fringe benefit because health care costs were so low. As time marched on, every family wanted the best health care for their employees and their kids. That has resulted in none of the normal principles of transparency and competition being involved. It’s been distorted.”
“We were tired of hearing the insurance companies tell us we were lucky that our premiums (were) going up 10 percent every year,” he continued. “The only way you were going to fix that was by changing the underwriters. We are doing basically the same thing the insurance companies have done … not to make a profit, but to pass those dynamics on to our employees. So they now shop around in the health care system. There’s probably not a business in the U.S. that has been able to take the basic things transparently, getting you to buy into your own health care, and can say they’ve been able to give their employees a great plan that has not cost a nickel more.”
This past year, Braun said his employee premiums actually went down $1,400.
It may be an emerging model as Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffet, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and JP Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon are forming an independent company to slay “the hungry tapeworm on the American economy,” which is the current health insurance system.
The contrast at the Congress of Counties was Rokita promising a campaign of “smash mouth football” while Messer pointed out that Donnelly votes with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer 85 percent of the time. “Well, Chuck Schumer is wrong more than 15% of the time,” Messer insisted.
These are the kind of political rally cries you’d expect from political veterans. But Rokita and Messer face in Braun someone coming at things with a different trajectory. And that’s why, with Rokita’s own internal polling showing nearly 60 percent of Republicans undecided, we’ve got a three-way Senate primary race.
— Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.