Sen. Mike Braun’s economic ties to China didn’t matter in 2018. Why is it contentious now?

INDIANAPOLIS — Having a business record with ties to China made little difference for a Republican six years ago running in a GOP primary in a deep-red state like Indiana. Now, in 2024, with the voting public increasingly seeing the Asian superpower as a threat to America’s own position in the world, that’s no longer the case.

Just ask Mike Braun.

When he ran for the Senate six years ago, Braun, eschewing a jacket and tie for his trademark blue shirt, vanquished two GOP lawmakers in a slash-and-burn primary as an outsider businessperson. Never mind his record of importing auto parts to his distribution company in Jasper, Indiana.

Now, though, China has become a major point of contention in the state’s gubernatorial campaign — a sign of how dramatically the politics surrounding China have shifted within the GOP. The threat of a rising China has been a dominant theme throughout the Republican primary here, inspiring campaign ads, policy proposals and, sometimes, attacks. This year, the Indiana General Assembly took steps to prohibit sister-city agreements with China, and the state’s public retirement system is divesting pension investments from the Asian nation.

And Braun himself attacked one of his opponents, the Fort Wayne developer Eric Doden, as a “pro-China RINO,” dinging what he described as his “support for Communist China.” (The source of the attack appears to be an economic development grant Doden, as a state economic development official, gave to General Electric Aviation to expand its operations in Indiana; the deal was signed off on at the time by Indiana Commerce Secretary Victor Smith, now a major Braun donor).

Braun, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, will leave the Senate at the end of his first term and is on track to win Indiana’s Republican gubernatorial primary on May 7, in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the position since 2000. As a candidate, he has argued that he has a “proven conservative track record of holding China accountable” in a primary that has largely focused on the Midwestern state’s vulnerabilities to the superpower.

But as the owner of an auto parts distribution company, Braun has economic ties to China, including his own company importing Chinese-made parts and leasing land near his headquarters to a second company that routinely imported products to the U.S. from the country.

And unlike when he ran for Senate, Braun’s business record, while not in direct contention with his policy proposals, cuts a very different way at a time when the superpower is viewed negatively by a vast majority of the population, even as he has taken a tough stance on China, saying the state “should not” negotiate with Chinese companies and touting a bill to prohibit the purchase of American farmland by those associated with China. They also show the difficulty of decoupling two massive, intertwined economies.

Meyer Distributing, the company Braun has long owned and used in his political career to define himself as an “outsider conservative businessman,” still relies on China for some of its product lines.

As recently as April 19, Meyer imported to its Jasper headquarters products from Changzhou Sunwood International Trading Co., Ltd., which bills itself as the “largest and best truck bed cover manufacturer in China,” according to shipping data from ImportGenius. The foreign port listed: Shanghai.

Braun’s campaign directed POLITICO to Meyer for questions about its recent shipment. A spokesperson for Meyer did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition, the company has a longtime relationship with CYC Engineering, an aftermarket auto parts manufacturer that leases land from Braun just a tenth a mile away from Meyer’s headquarters, and sources about 95 percent of its products from China, according to Panjiva, the supply chain research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence.

CYC’s CEO, Yung Jen Chi, of Union City, Calif., maxed out to Braun’s 2018 Senate campaign, campaign finance records reported here for the first time show. Jen Chi did not respond to questions from POLITICO. CYC sells the Raptor series of truck running boards and other miscellaneous parts, which are sourced from China. A 2018 Associated Press investigation found that CYC had received 400 shipments of products from Chinese manufacturers over the course of a decade — at the same time Braun was building both his personal wealth and political profile at Meyer.

Since Braun took his Senate seat in 2019, he has stepped away from day-to-day operations of Meyer, and his sons have taken over the business. But Meyer is still a central part of his political image. He cites the company frequently while on the trail and has sat for interviews with reporters there during his gubernatorial campaign. A campaign spokesperson said even though he maintained office space there, it was leased by the campaign.

Braun’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview, but pointed to his Senate bill, introduced last year, that would “prohibit the purchase of U.S. farmland by those associated with the governments of our foreign adversaries,” including China, Iran, North Korea and Russia.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Braun defended his record as job creator of a company “that employs thousands of Americans,” and cited this story’s proximity to the Tuesday primary.

“Mike Braun stood with President Trump to take on China and will continue the fight to bring jobs back to Indiana as Governor,” the spokesperson said.

Braun’s own dealings with China made news in his 2018 Senate race, when the Associated Press reported that Promaxx Automotive, which Braun’s company had patented, made the parts in China.

Meyer’s dealings with China and Chinese-sourced companies illustrates the difficulty of delinking the two economic giants, even at a time when China is becoming politically verboten territory. As recently as 2019, two-term Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, who is term-limited, traveled to China, which supported 21 Indiana businesses at the time.

In every public poll, Braun has led the six-person GOP gubernatorial field in Indiana — which includes Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, Indianapolis businessperson Brad Chambers, Doden, former Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, and faith leader Jamie Reitenour — since jumping into the race in 2022.

Former President Donald Trump endorsed Braun in November, and Donald Trump Jr. appeared at a rally for him and other down-ballot candidates here earlier this spring.