In past U.S. Senate races in Indiana, the emphasis in the campaign homestretch is mostly concentrated on domestic or foreign policy. We’ve watched the debate in races going back to 2010 center on issues like deficits and debt, Obamacare, our alliance with Israel, military strength, or tax reform.
The battle between U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly and Republican Mike Braun this time has strangely focused on their personal business interests, with most of the dirty work coming from super PACs that operate independently and are cloaked from the actual campaigns. If you’ve watched any TV lately, you’ve heard about “Mexico Joe” shipping jobs south of the border and Braun, whose company is selling auto parts imported from China.
Here’s how this works: The campaigns and special interests do thorough opposition research. This extends to everything from personal taxes and financial disclosures, to legal items like divorce, domestic confrontations, DUIs, and bankruptcy (which neither candidate has dealt with), personal resumes like college degrees, congressional and General Assembly voting records, political contributions, residency and business practices.
In 2010, the residency issue was used unsuccessfully against Republican Dan Coats who moved back to Indiana to run, quickly buying a home here, and in 2012, it played a crucial role in the Republican primary defeat of U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, who lived in Virginia, though he owned a tree farm in Indianapolis.
Campaigns and PACs comb through the research, find their silver bullets, and will often approach reporters. For instance, in the 2016 Senate primary between Republican Reps. Todd Young and Marlin Stutzman, I was approached about family vacations Stutzman supposedly took on the taxpayer dime. In the primary race between Braun and Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer, youthful alcohol transgressions with the latter two surfaced in news reports. Once published, the campaigns use the controversy in TV ads, citing the news source. It’s supposed to lend credibility, as opposed to an outright mudball foisted by a campaign with little or no veracity.
In July 2017, the story about LaPorte-based Stewart Superior surfaced. It came after Sen. Donnelly had been critical of Carrier shipping jobs from Indianapolis to Mexico despite intervention from President-elect Donald Trump and then Gov. Mike Pence. Stewart Superior is owned by Donnelly’s brother, but the senator had about $50,000 in stock in the company, though he hadn’t been involved in day-to-day management for decades.
But here was the catch by Associated Press reporter Brian Slodysko: The company over the previous year had “been shipping thousands of pounds of raw materials to Mexico, where the company has a factory that produces ink pads. The finished products are then transported back to a company facility in California.” There was this line: Donnelly and his family had been “capitalizing on some of the very trade policies — and low-paid foreign labor — the senator has denounced.”
What appeared to be a blip of a story has since become a point of emphasis. Within weeks, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and super PACs linked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had come up with this campaign hook: Sen. Donnelly was transformed into “Mexico Joe.” When he kicked off his reelection bid at a UAW hall in Anderson a month later, a mariachi band was outside playing tunes. For the last year, we’ve seen “Mexico Joe” in attack ads on TV as well as digital formats. There was our senator, wearing a festive sombrero, which has become an affront of Hoosier Latinos.
Donnelly quickly divested his financial stake in the company.
Now this is where the proverbial “goes around” … well … “comes around.” There sitting before Donnelly and Democratic super PACs were Braun’s companies, the auto parts firm Meyer Distributing and Meyer Logistics, a trucking firm. Talk to anyone in the Jasper area and they’ll tell you that these firms are community economic cornerstones, employing hundreds of Hoosiers and some 850 people nationwide.
But once the campaign and PACs churned through the records, we learn from AP’s Slodysko, three essential bullet points parlayed into campaign assaults: Braun’s trucking company and distribution companies “overworked and underpaid employees.” They imported goods from Mexico and China “while pretending to care about American jobs.” And Braun used his state legislature seat to “enrich himself and his lumber companies.”
The Donnelly campaign and the Democratic super PAC American Bridge have been running those “blue shirt” TV ads proclaiming Braun’s companies violated federal Fair Labor Standards Act 26 times on overtime pay between 2013 and 2015, and that Braun companies had 55 unsafe driving and 41 “hours of service” violations.
As for the distribution of auto parts made in China or Mexico, well, you can’t find an American or foreign car without them. That’s what the integrated global parts chain is all about. Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning independent fact checker, quotes Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who notes that 40 percent of parts needed to build a Ford F-150, Dodge Caravan or a Chevy Impala come from outside the United States.
So while our deficits explode (with the federal credit card to be paid by our kids and grandkids), medical costs rise as Obamacare has been severely crimped with no functional replacement, while Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid steadily hurtle toward insolvency and while climate change produces an array of rain-drenching super storms and drought-induced firestorms, the U.S. Senate race is boiling down to a contest between between “Mexico Joe” and “China Mike.”
Brian A. Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.