Why one rising GOP senator is tapping out for a governor’s race instead

Crucially for his party, Braun said he would serve out the rest of his term no matter what happens in the 2024 governor’s race. He hasn’t decided whether to endorse a successor in what’s shaping up to be a tough Republican primary to succeed him, with both Reps. Jim Banks and Victoria Spartz considering campaigns, as well as former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Braun’s decision wasn’t exactly a state secret when he formally announced on Monday: He’d already filed paperwork and told fellow Indiana Republicans of his intentions. And senators in both parties said that it’s logical that Braun, who ran an auto parts business before entering politics, chafed at being one of 100 legislators in a chamber known for its glacial progress.

“A loss for us, a gain for Indiana,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.), who has been plotting with Braun to give the GOP a more clear-cut agenda. “It takes forever to get anything done. Mike is more of a business, action-oriented guy.”

Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.), a former governor himself, has weighed whether to seek a fresh run at his old job but ultimately chose to stick with a Senate that he has often said “sucks.” He said Braun “is perfectly suited to be a good governor. That’s his mindset… he wants to fix problems, get things done. It’s frustrating for anyone here [in the Senate].”

Today’s Senate is filled with former governors. Some of them, like Manchin, are occasionally tempted to dream about a return engagement in the statehouse. Then there’s senators like Susan Collins (R-Maine) or Bill Cassidy (R-La.) who mull run for governor, but decide instead to stay put and capitalize on their seniority.

At least one more senator is still kicking the tires on life in a governor’s mansion: Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). He’s under even more pressure than Braun, with his state’s race taking place in 2023. Kennedy said in an interview that as a senator he has opportunities he would never have as a governor, like a dinner last week with Bill Gates — but that his influence as an executive “would be more direct.”

“As a governor, you’re in charge of your own agenda. Up here, you’re never in charge of your own agenda,” Kennedy mused. “There’s no good or bad, there’s no right or wrong, they’re just two different jobs.”

Kennedy said he is likely to decide by early next month whether to take on Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry in a potentially crowded gubernatorial race.

Braun and Kennedy have more in common than evident frustration with the Senate’s pace: Both are chatty, loyal conservatives. But Kennedy comes to Congress after a long run of public service and bids for high office. Braun was primarily devoted to his business before his Senate race, although he also served in the state legislature.

He won his Senate seat by dispatching two GOP congressmen with a memorable ad showing them as cardboard cutouts, then rode Indiana’s redder-than-ever status into the Senate. He said the decision to run for governor was “difficult, because it took me a big effort to get here,” a reference not only to the work of a campaign but the millions of dollars of his own money that he spent on 2018’s run.

Braun is one of the wealthier members of Congress, but he’s not going to self-finance his gubernatorial campaign this time around. He says he doesn’t have the ability to do so even if he wanted to: “I will need help from other like-minded Hoosiers and folks across the country that want a common-sense conservative that’s not afraid to wrestle with the big nation issues.”

What that means in practice is a more policy-heavy foray than senators typically make, focusing on issues like health care, education and climate change from a Republican perspective.

“I’m going to come back to Indiana and try to set my example of how you really address health care,” Braun explained. “If conservatives aren’t involved in politics, we’re going to always be complaining about what the other side of the aisle dishes up for us. “

In announcing his run, Braun released polling results showing him with a commanding lead over primary rivals Lt. Govt. Suzanne Crouch and businessman Eric Doden. Others may yet get in. And unlike his 2018 Senate mystery man campaign, Braun is no longer a complete outsider nor a newbie in high-powered politics.

He said his conservative record would help counteract any attack that he’s gone Washington — indeed, he voted against Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to lead the conference and is a reliable “no” vote on lots of legislation. After expressing interest in gun safety during former president Donald Trump’s administration, he voted against this year’s bipartisan law on that issue and twice voted against Trump’s impeachment.

Braun said he expects to have Trump’s approval, but demurred on whether he supports the former president’s 2024 campaign. And the senator even advised the one-time leader of the party to emphasize his accomplishments rather than ‘something he can’t reverse,’ a reference to Trump’s obsession with the 2020 election.

Before extending his presidential endorsement, Braun said he’ll wait to see which candidate is most devoted to smaller government and fiscal conservatism: “No one has come out clearly for that, not even a so-called conservative. No one. I’m going to wait and see who articulates that.”

And although it cuts against his pugnaciously conservative image, his response to Trump’s challenge to the 2020 election results was a defining moment for Braun. The senator initially announced he would object to certifying Trump’s loss but changed his mind after the Capitol riot. He still feels vindicated.

“I said it then.” I’ll say it now,” Braun said. “That was a day you want to get into the rearview mirror, as quickly as possible.”