NASHVILLE, Ind. – To put the emerging $100 million U.S.
Senate race into perspective, the general election is a little more than 13
months away and already $10.5 million in candidate money has already spilled
Add the astonishing amount of outside money – $3,516,273 million at this point – that includes a $993,928 buy (at this writing) by Americans For Prosperity tax reform push aimed at U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly this month, and it’s easy to see that the $100 million figure isn’t hyperbole, but a very real threshold. Democrats and allies have spent $930,542 thus far and $2,585,731 has been spent by Republicans and allied groups.
The third quarter FEC reports did not yield any truly shocking developments. Donnelly raised $1.3 million and reported $4.6 million cash on hand. U.S. Rep. Luke Messer rebounded from a disappointing second quarter by posting a decent $735,000 that surpassed U.S. Sen. Todd Young’s haul ($721,000) for the third quarter in 2015. If there was a mild surprise, it was U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita’s $450,000 haul for the quarter, though both he and Messer are reporting about $2.4 million cash on hand.
The wildcard in the GOP primary race is State Rep. Mike Braun, who posted $1 million that included $800,000 from himself. He told HPI in August that he was prepared to self-fund an early sequence of his campaign in order to establish credibility. That he raised $200,000 in outside money in a little more than a month reveals that he has money traction, particularly with the CEO class he banks on to further fund his campaign.
“Our fundraising success as a campaign is a clear signal that Hoosiers are ready for a leader with private sector experience who can deliver results and make conservative change happen in Washington,” Braun said. “This campaign will receive support from a combination of grassroots donors and my own resources to ensure we can battle the money flowing from the D.C. swamp to my opponents. When I go to the U.S. Senate, I will not owe anything to anyone other than the Hoosiers I want to represent.”
Traditionally the third quarter in the year prior to the election is one of the toughest cycles. Many early supporters max out in earlier quarters. In the Messer-Rokita showdown, many donors not committed to a candidate are watching to see if anyone emerges as a frontrunner. Thus far the Republican Senate race looks to be a pure tossup. At this point in 2015, Young’s fundraising prowess over Eric Holcomb and U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman gave the perception that he was the emerging frontrunner.
With Congressional approval at 15% in a recent Fox News Poll, many observers believe there is a path for Braun to emerge between the brawling Messer and Rokita. On Oct. 10, Braun attempted to exploit the unpopularity of Congress by announcing he will support term limits.
“I made my career in the private sector. Our country needs more people who can tackle big issues from perspectives gained from running a business and not a career politician’s perspective. Our country needs term limits if we want to clean up Washington,” Braun stated. “The political establishment in Washington have no understanding of how to run a business and how their disastrous policies impact our fellow Hoosiers. The career politicians are always more worried about winning reelection than delivering results for the American people,” Braun continued.
US Term Limits President Philip Blumel commented on Braun’s pledge, saying, “Mike’s support of term limits shows that there are people who are willing to put self-interest aside to follow the will of the people and the founding fathers. America needs a Congress that will be served by citizen legislators, not career politicians.” The group’s website does not list Messer or Rokita, who is campaigning on a “Defeat the Elite” slogan, as signees.
Trump numbers sag
Beyond the FEC numbers, the other fascinating data sets are President Trump’s Indiana numbers. Mark It Red, polling for the Indiana House Republican Campaign Committee, revealed that while Gov. Eric Holcomb’s job approval stands at 62% with just 21% disapproving, Trump’s approval stood at 47% with 50% disapproving. On the “favorable/unfavorable” question, Trump stands at 49/49%, but is at 87% favorable with Hoosier Republicans, which explains why Rokita and Messer continue to embrace the embattled president.
Last week a Morning Consult survey in all 50 states indicates that voters have grown bearish on his performance in office. It shows Trump’s approve/disapprove in Indiana has declined from 55.3/33% in January to 49.8/44.9% in late September, or a 17% dropoff. The Messer campaign polling revealed similar numbers in July.
So this is the dilemma for Messer and Rokita. Both believe they need Trump voters to win the primary. And yet Trump is a double-edged sword, constantly pecking at House Speaker Paul Ryan and lately, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
On Monday, Trump seemed to be playing both sides. During rollicking joint press conference in the Rose Garden, Trump declared he and McConnell “are probably now … closer than ever before. The relationship is very good. We’re fighting for the same thing. We’re fighting for lower taxes, a big tax cut, the biggest tax cuts in the history of our nation. We’re fighting for tax reform as part of that.”
On Trump’s pressure point aimed at Donnelly on tax reform, a CBS Tracker Poll found 58% of Americans think the current reforms being discussed would favor the rich, while 18% think they would favor the middle class. Another 19% feel the changes would treat all equally. Among President Trump’s strongest supporters, 40% believe all would be treated equally.
The CBS poll found 39% of Republicans feel their party’s congressional representatives “don’t like” the president and are actively trying to undermine him, while another 37% think congressional Republicans don’t like President Trump “but pretend to” in order to try to get their agenda passed.
Then there is Steve Bannon’s insurgency aimed at McConnell’s caucus, Trump saying, “Steve is a friend of mine. I can understand where Steve Bannon is coming from. There are some Republicans, frankly, that should be ashamed of themselves.” As for the Senate health care defeats, Trump said, “I’m not going to blame myself, I’ll be honest. They are not getting the job done.”
But in the very same news cycle, Bannon acted Monday on his pledge to lead a “populist nationalist conservative revolt,” endorsing State Sen. Kelli Ward over Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake – the first sitting Republican senator to be formally targeted by the pro-Donald Trump group. “Americans are tired of the inaction from the Washington swamp and demand Senate Republicans get off their backsides and pass President Trump’s America First agenda,” Ed Rollins, chief strategist for Great America PAC, said in a statement. CBS News reported the group also announced Monday it was supporting retired Marine Kevin Nicholson in Wisconsin over state Sen. Leah Vukmir in the GOP primary to challenge Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat seeking her second term. Bannon is openly targeting Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker (a former Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee chair), and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller.
Little wonder that Rokita has latched on to the “defeat the elite” slogan and the Messer campaign has positioned him to “run against the Senate.” McConnell and his related political action committee have not endorsed in the Indiana race and are likely to sit this one out. Messer and Rokita would probably prefer he stay on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River.
As the GOP field moves to woo Trump voters, and it is questionable whether many of these first-time voters in 2016 will even show up next May, the Donnelly campaign is compiling quotes and B-roll for the fall campaign.
“After kicking off his campaign and crossing the state in his RV, Joe told Hoosiers he’d continue to fight for them in the Senate, and our supporters responded incredibly,” said Donnelly campaign manager Peter Hanscom. “Their enthusiasm and small dollar contributions have pushed Joe’s campaign to another successful quarter. Joe’s thankful for their support, and by bringing the same fiscal conservatism that he relies on in Washington to the campaign trail, we’re certain we’ll have the robust cash on hand we need to defend his record for the next year.”
Donnelly’s campaign noted that small “grassroots” donations made up the bulk of the senator’s contributions for the third quarter. More than half the contributions were for $15 or less, it said, and 84% were for $50 or less.
HPI Horse Race Republican Primary: Tossup
Democrat blast ‘missing’ Messer
Five days into a week-and-a-half long recess, U.S. Rep. Luke Messer has not held a single event in the state, nor has he announced plans to, Indiana Democrats charged on Wednesday. After its last set of votes this past Friday, the House of Representatives adjourned until October 23 for recess, formally known as a District Work Period – when, as the name implies, Members of Congress are expected to work in their district. That would apply doubly for someone who, like Congressman Messer, is actively running for higher office and will face voters across the state next May. “Congressman Messer’s utter absence would be puzzling for any Member of Congress, let alone one running for the U.S. Senate,” said Will Baskin-Gerwitz, sokesman for the Indiana Democratic Party. “Where is Congressman Messer? As Joe Donnelly has shown, Indiana voters want a Senator who represents them with hard work and Hoosier common sense – disappearing when you’re supposed to be back home again in Indiana shows neither. If you need a break with 13 months still to go, maybe this isn’t for you.”
In what’s been largely characterized as a contest between two Republican members of Congress , a businessman with the ability to self-fund has made the first statewide TV and radio buys in the Indiana Senate primary.
Former state Rep. Mike Braun’s $329,000 three-week radio and TV buy signals he’s making this a three-person race. He announced his campaign in August.
Braun is the CEO of Meyer Distributing, an Indiana company that distributes automotive and truck accessories. The TV spot plays up Braun’s business experience and credentials as a “conservative outsider.”
“I built a successful national company here in my hometown of Jasper, and it’s time we had some Hoosier know-how in the Senate, rather than more career politicians,” Braun says in the ad.
The radio ad opens and closes with the words, “Businessman. Outsider. Conservative.”
“Mike grew up in Jasper, Indiana, but after business school at Harvard University, he turned down jobs on Wall Street to come home and build a national company just steps from where he grew up,” the narrator says.
Braun resigned his state legislative seat earlier this month to focus on his Senate bid. He loaned $850,000 of his own money to his campaign in the third quarter — ending with a higher third-quarter haul than both GOP Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer . But Braun raised only about $200,000 during the quarter.
Braun expects he’ll need between $4 million and $6 million for the primary. He’s backed by a super PAC run by the same New Hampshire-based strategist who oversaw a super PAC supporting freshman Rep. Trey Hollingsworth ’s bid for the 9th District last year. And Braun could still benefit from the support of outside conservative groups, which have yet to endorse in the race.
A handful of other Republicans are vying for the GOP nomination to take on Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in 2018.
Like Rokita and Messer, Braun is a graduate of Wabash College. While the two members of Congress are attacking each other, Braun is hoping to stick out as the candidate who’s not in Washington. If he were to win the primary and defeat Donnelly, he would not move his family to Washington, he has said.