By BRIAN SLODYSKO
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - A wealthy Indiana Senate candidate who bills himself in television ads as a conservative Republican voted for more than a decade as a Democrat in the state's primary elections, 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 until 2012.
That could spell trouble for Braun, a businessman and former state lawmaker who elbowed his way into the competitive GOP Senate primary by investing more than $800,000 of his own money. In recent years, such races have been Republican purity competitions; next May's election determining who will face Democrat Joe Donnelly in the fall appears to be no exception.
"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 voted in Democratic primaries in an attempt to impact the outcomes of those races.
Both of Braun's chief rivals, Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, have long been involved in Republican Party politics, with each taking public office in the early 2000s. Braun, on the other hand, is listed as a "Hard Democrat" in a voter database maintained by the Republican National Committee, according to records obtained by the AP.
He began voting as a Democrat in at least 1996, according to county records that date back only 25 years. That continued through the 2008 primary, where Hillary Clinton narrowly defeated Barack Obama following a heated campaign, though Kelley declined to say which candidate Braun voted for.
Braun, who owns a national auto parts distribution business, has already drawn heat over a vote this year in favor of a 10-cent-per-gallon fuel tax increase, which occurred before he stepped down from the Legislature to focus on his Senate campaign. That vote, combined with the revelation that he regularly voted as a Democrat, could open him up to charges of being a "RINO," a derisive acronym for "Republican In Name Only" often used by conservative activists.
"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. In Wisconsin, Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir has seized on primary opponent Kevin Nicholson's past as president of the College Democrats of America.
Nicholson, 39, has the backing of Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump's former strategist, and says he was a Democrat in his "younger days." But in the competition determining who will face Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin next year, Vukmir says Nicholson's only track record of being a conservative is "him saying he's a conservative."
In Indiana, voters are not required to register with one particular party. Rather, their selection of a Republican or Democratic primary ballot becomes their de facto party affiliation.
That makes the timing of Braun's 2012 switch to the GOP significant in light of his election to the Indiana House of Representatives in 2014.
Under Indiana law, partisan candidates are required to have cast a ballot in their party's previous primary, unless they receive written special permission from their local county chairman.
Braun, who served nearly three years in the Legislature, qualified for the ballot as a Republican in 2014 because he pulled his first recorded GOP ballot in 2012.
Still, his campaign denies he was ever a Democrat. They insist he always voted Republican in general elections, though that's hard to prove because general election ballots are kept secret.
Braun's hometown of Jasper, a southern Indiana town about 50 miles north of the Ohio River, used to elect conservative Democrats. The area now trends Republican amid a decade of shifting party demographics and a major redrawing of congressional and Statehouse districts led by Republicans who control the Legislature.
His campaign insists, however, that Braun was trying to forward Republican interests by voting for Democrats.
"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.
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.