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Sunday, November 26, 2017 1:00 am

Braun richest of Senate hopefuls

Worth $66 million; others worth $1.8 million

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

A candidate for the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat representing Indiana reports assets ranging from roughly $37 million to nearly $95 million.

Former state representative Mike Braun of Jasper, who runs a nationwide auto parts distribution business, is by far the wealthiest of six Senate hopefuls in next year's election, according to the candidates' financial disclosure reports.

Braun's estimated average net worth is nearly $66 million. The combined net worth of the other five candidates, including Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, is about $1.8 million, dragged down in large part by mortgage liabilities on several houses.

Braun is founder and chief executive officer of Meyer Distributing and owner of a related trucking and warehousing company, Meyer Logistics. His net worth was exceeded by that of only four senators in 2015, according to rankings compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics and based on financial disclosure reports required by Congress. Braun's report is for calendar year 2016.

“I started my business over 35 years ago in my hometown with fewer than a dozen employees. As the result of hard work and God's blessing, my company expanded nationwide and helped thousands of families put food on their tables,” Braun said in an email to The Journal Gazette. “The American people need more businessmen and fewer career politicians serving them in Washington.” 

The Center for Responsive Politics estimates a person's average net worth by subtracting minimum liabilities from minimum assets and subtracting maximum liabilities from maximum assets, then averaging the two numbers. Congress allows federal lawmakers and candidates to report their assets, asset income and liabilities in broad ranges.

Braun reported owning between $25 million and $50 million worth of nonpublic stock in Meyer Distributing. He also owns what he described as unimproved timber ground in Jasper that is worth between $5 million and $25 million.

His other assets include bank deposits, mutual funds, retirement plans, life insurance and government securities. He owns farmland in Jasper, French Lick and Owensville. Braun reported between $215,00 and $550,000 in liabilities, which consisted of two mortgages and a line of credit.

He reported between $18.9 million and nearly $20 million in investment income, mostly from business earnings but also from interest, dividends and rent or royalties. He reported $538,000 in salary and wages, including his pay when he was a member of the Indiana House. 

First elected to the House in 2014, Braun resigned from his southwestern Indiana seat effective Nov. 1.

Wealthy people have sought and won public office throughout U.S. history. According to the Center for Responsive Candidates, 22 senators and 51 members of the House had an average net worth of more than $10 million for 2015.

Republican U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, who won election last year in a southern Indiana congressional district, appears to have a net worth north of $140 million. Forbes recently estimated President Donald Trump's worth at $3.1 billion. 

“The trend across the country is for more wealthy individuals running for office. We see this in gubernatorial races in Alabama, Illinois, Florida, Nevada, and elsewhere,” Joseph Losco, professor emeritus at Ball State University's political science department, said in an email.

Losco noted that NBA franchise owner Mark Cuban and entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey have been mentioned as possible presidential candidates in 2020. Forbes pegs Cuban's wealth at $3.3 billion and Winfrey's at $3 billion.

“The deterioration of financial limits and disclosure laws along with the successful candidacy of Donald Trump are encouraging to the super rich. Many think 'If Donald Trump can win, why can't I?'” Losco said.

Michael Wolf, chair of the IPFW political science department, said in an email that a candidate's personal wealth is “an indication of success outside of government. That's often a beneficial thing in an era when Americans distrust politicians.”

Braun is in a field of five Republicans who seek to unseat Donnelly from the Senate. Before Braun launched his campaign in August, the race for the GOP nomination appeared to be between U.S. Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita.

Losco said the May primary election “is probably anyone's race. Money will surely help.”

For the quarter ending Sept. 30, the campaigns for Messer and Rokita reported having about $2.4 million each in cash, while Braun's campaign had $1 million in cash. Braun, who lent his campaign $850,000 of his own money in September, told The Journal Gazette when announcing his candidacy, “If the message is resonating, I am going to make sure that the campaign is financed properly.”

Wolf said self-funded campaigns let candidates portray themselves as independent of donors while criticizing their rivals as beholden to special-interest contributors. On the other hand, being wealthy can make it harder for candidates to convince supporters they still need financial help, Wolf said.

“Also, fundraising is a way to meet party insiders, incumbents (in Congress), and others who might endorse you. So having to raise money can have some under-appreciated side benefits politically,” Wolf said.

Rokita reported assets of between $765,000 and roughly $2.43 million for 2016 and liabilities of between $1 million and $2.1 million. His average net worth was about $36,000. Rokita's assets included bank deposits, stocks and mutual funds. His liabilities included mortgages for his principal residence and four rental homes. He also reported between $23,000 and $54,000 in investment income.

Messer reported assets of between $497,000 and $1.63 million and liabilities of between $540,000 and roughly $1.1 million. His average net worth was $307,000. Messer's assets included bank deposits, mutual funds, individual retirement accounts and his wife's law firm. His liabilities consisted mostly of mortgages on homes in Greensburg; McLean, Virginia; and Daindridge, Tennessee. He reported between $800 and $4,200 in investment income.

New Albany college administrator Andrew Takami reported assets of between $401,000 and $865,000 and liabilities of between $130,000 and $350,000 for a mortgage, college loan and line of credit. His net worth was $393,000. Takami reported earned income of nearly $96,000. Takami's assets consisted mostly of his home and two retirement plans.

Kokomo attorney Mark Hurt reported in July assets of between $325,000 and $850,000 and no liabilities exceeding $10,000. His net worth was about $588,000. Hurt reported income of $108,000. Hurt's assets included bank deposits, stock, life insurance, gold and silver coins, up to $15,000 worth of baseball cards and commercial real estate in Grabill.

Donnelly reported assets of between $722,000 and nearly $1.66 million and liabilities of between $500,000 and $1 million. His net worth was about $439,000. Donnelly's assets included a Michigan City home, bank and credit union deposits, mutual funds and stock. His liabilities were two mortgages, one of which he paid off in 2016.

Figures for Donnelly reflect his sale in August of between $15,000 and $50,000 worth of non-public stock in Stewart Superior Corp., a Fairfield, New Jersey, manufacturer of arts and crafts. Donnelly, who has introduced legislation that could penalize American companies that outsource jobs to other countries, had announced he would sell the stock in his family-owned company after The Associated Press reported in July that Stewart Superior produces ink pads at a factory in Mexico.

Numbers for this story have been rounded. 

Members of Congress are paid $174,000 a year, which they do not have to report on their financial disclosure statements.

bfrancisco@jg.net