Indiana GOP Senate candidate voted Democrat until 2012

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A wealthy Indiana Senate candidate who bills himself in television ads as a conservative Republican voted for more than a decade in the state's Democratic primaries, according to public documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Records from the Dubois County Clerk's office, where candidate Mike Braun is registered to vote, show the 63-year-old consistently cast Democratic ballots in partisan primary elections until 2012. He began voting in Democratic primaries in at least 1996, according to county records that date back only 25 years. That includes the 2008 primary where Hillary Clinton narrowly defeated Barack Obama following a heated campaign.

That could cause trouble for Braun, a businessman and former state lawmaker who elbowed his way into a competitive GOP Senate primary by investing more than $800,000 of his own money. In recent years, Indiana Republican primaries have been GOP purity competitions; whoever wins in May will go on to face Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly during the 2018 general election.

Braun, who owns a national auto parts distribution business, has already drawn heat over his vote this year in favor of a 10-cent-per-gallon fuel tax increase, which occurred before he stepped down from the Legislature this fall to focus on his Senate campaign. That vote, combined with the revelation that he didn't vote as a Republican until 2012, could open him up to charges of being a "RINO," a derisive acronym for "Republican In Name Only" often used by conservative activities.

"Mike Braun is a lifelong Republican and this is just another tired attack from the political class," said spokesman Josh Kelley, who added that Braun cast Democratic primary ballots in an attempt to impact the outcomes of those races. Kelley declined to say if Braun voted for Obama or Clinton in 2008.

His chief primary rivals, Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, held elected office as Republicans a decade before Braun crossed over.

"Mike Braun raises taxes like a Democrat so it's not a surprise he votes for Democrats too," said Rokita spokesman Tim Edson.

Messer's campaign declined to comment, as did a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

It's not the first time a candidate's prior partisan affiliation has emerged as an issue in a Senate race this year. A primary opponent has seized on Wisconsin Republican Kevin Nicholson's past as president of the College Democrats of America. State Sen. Leah Vukmir said Nicholson's only track record of being a conservative is "him saying he's a conservative."

Nicholson, 39, has the backing of Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump's former strategist, in a race that will determine who will face Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Nicholson says he was a Democrat in his "younger days," though he still voted as a Democrat as recently as 2008.

Indiana does not require voters to register with one particular party. Rather, their selection of a Republican or Democratic ballot during a primary becomes their de facto party affiliation.

The timing of Braun's 2012 switch is significant, given his election to the Indiana House of Representatives as a Republican in 2014. State law requires partisan candidates for office to have voted with their party during the previous primary election, unless they have written permission from the GOP county chairman where they live.

Braun, who served nearly three years in the Legislature, was able to qualify for the ballot in 2014 without special permission because he had pulled a Republican ballot during the 2012 primary.

Still, Braun's campaign denies that he ever changed allegiances. They insist he has always voted Republican during general elections, though there is no way of knowing because those ballots are kept secret.

Braun lives in Jasper, a southern Indiana town about 50 miles north of the Ohio River, which used to elect conservative Democrats. That's changed over the past decade amid shifting party demographics and a major redrawing of congressional and Statehouse districts led by Republicans who control the Legislature. But at one point there was a partisan advantage for Republicans who pulled Democrat ballots, his campaign argues.

"As is often the case in solidly blue counties, like DuBois was at the time, Mike cast his vote in competitive local primaries where it would have the greatest impact, while voting solidly Republican in general elections," Kelley said.

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