Reps clash in Indiana Republican primary

Reps clash in Indiana Republican primary
© Greg Nash

The Indiana Republican primary to take on vulnerable Democratic Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyTrump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE could come down to two House representatives.

The GOP nomination offers a good chance at winning a Senate seat, since the Hoosier State sports one of the better pickup opportunities for Republicans on the 2018 midterm map.

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President Trump and Vice President Pence — then Indiana’s governor — won the state by about 19 points last November. The GOP sees Donnelly as an easy target whose original 2012 election was boosted by an opponent’s gaffe.

But GOP Indiana Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, who both appear to be gearing up to run, will have to go through each other first. And judging by the jousting between the two lawmakers before they have even entered the race, things could get nasty.

“Their intentions are obvious in how they are treating each other,” a top Indiana Republican who is staying neutral told The Hill.

“This seems to be heading toward an opposition air war, because nothing has been brought to my attention where they are legitimately different on the issues.”

Tensions began to boil over last month when two negative stories — one for each potential candidate — appeared in the media.

The Associated Press reported that an Indiana city has paid Messer’s wife more than half a million dollars for consulting. Rokita’s camp has raised questions about whether the report could also bring up residency concerns for Messer, since his wife initially listed a Virginia address as her home.

And Rokita reportedly paid $100,000 of his campaign spending to a private plane company that he owns a stake in, according to a Politico Pro report.

Neither story alleged any violation of the law. But they each create a possible opening for an opponent to attack, which is why both congressmen have struck back.

Rokita blasted Messer in an email to supporters last month, accusing the congressman of planting the “nasty, false attacks” in the plane story and adding that “Messer is trying to distract from” the consulting story and its “residency issues.”

For his part, Messer disparaged the consulting story in an email obtained by Howey Politics Indiana, a high-profile state political journal, as a “complete hatchet job directly attributable to Rokita.”

Rokita has been more aggressive in his style out on the trail.

He’s openly tried to push Messer out of the race before he makes a decision on getting in, telling Howey Politics in April that Messer should opt to stay in the House and rise through leadership instead of trading his seat for a Senate bid.

And Hoosiers told The Hill that Rokita has been raising the AP’s consulting story and the idea of ensuing residency issues during speeches at political events across the state.

The two lawmakers have similar voting records and are just a year apart in age. Rokita is a bit better known statewide because of a stint as Indiana’s secretary of state, while Messer’s position in House leadership gives him many key allies.

Most Hoosiers, even those close to the potential candidates, see the race as a debate that’s bound to be about the style differences between what the neutral Indiana Republican source called a “more congenial” Messer and a “more aggressive” Rokita who is “willing to push the envelope.”

A source close to Rokita kept up that hard-charging style in a conversation with The Hill.

“Indiana Republicans should be glad there’s a primary, because Luke Messer is a flawed candidate that needs the primary,” the Rokita ally said.

But a source familiar with Messer’s thinking said Rokita’s attacks would turn off party insiders.

“It’s the time where the only people paying attention are opinion leaders and those who don’t take kindly to Republicans attacking Republicans,” the Messer source said.

“There’s something about the temperature of Rokita’s attacks that doesn’t seem sustainable over the next more than a year.”

Both men have roughly the same cash on hand for a potential bid. Messer ended March, the last campaign fundraising deadline, with a bit more than $1.6 million in his campaign account, compared to Rokita’s $1.55 million.

Neither congressman has officially declared his candidacy, so the next reports due in July will likely go a long way toward determining whether one candidate can pull ahead. Hefty dollar figures could also be used to scare off other primary challengers, or perhaps the other congressman, while weak fundraising could encourage more entrants.

A handful of other candidates have already waded in, though they are expected to run behind either congressman. But Indiana sources say that other big names could be interested in running, too.

State Rep. Mike Braun, who could self-fund, has been making calls about the race to gauge support, according to a source. And there’s chatter that state Attorney General Curtis Hill, who won more votes last year than any other candidate in Indiana history, is interested as well.

The Indiana Republican source said it’s possible that the member-on-member battle could create a small opening for a third candidate to emerge.

No matter how the primary shakes out, the sparring between Rokita and Messer is encouraging to Democrats hoping a rough primary could weaken the eventual GOP nominee.

Will Baskin-Gerwitz, the Indiana Democratic Party spokesman, told The Hill that the “ugly race to the bottom” will contrast well with Donnelly.

Sources in both the Rokita and Messer camps said they were not worried about whether the primary climate could damage their candidate. And clearing the field didn’t work well for Democrats in 2016, when nominee Baron Hill withdrew to allow Indiana Democratic institution and former Sen. Evan Bayh to jump in — only to see Bayh lose to Republican nominee Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungThe Hill's Whip List: Where Republicans stand on Senate tax bill Republican senators wrestle with their Roy Moore problem GOP mobilizes against Moore MORE by a double-digit margin.

But the Messer source admitted that resource allocation will be important if the party wants to take down Donnelly, who can focus on fundraising while the GOP candidates fight their primary.

“What you want to avoid is a situation where resources are so depleted when you come out of a primary in May that you have to start from scratch,” the source said.

That’s because Republicans view Donnelly’s seat as ripe for the taking.

The seat became surprisingly competitive in 2012 when incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar (R) lost a primary upset to Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who embraced the Tea Party movement sweeping the GOP around that time.

And while the race had been seen as neck-and-neck down the stretch, Mourdock’s candidacy imploded after he referred to a pregnancy conceived during rape as “something God intended to happen” when asked about his views on abortion during a debate.

Donnelly ultimately won by 6 percentage points.

Republicans now want revenge, and are pointing to Trump’s commanding win, as well as Young’s defeat of Bayh.

“Joe Donnelly has spent his decade in Congress accomplishing nothing, while providing a reliable vote for the left’s priorities. Hoosiers know that Donnelly stands with radicals like [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerAmerica isn't ready to let Sessions off his leash Schumer celebrates New York Giants firing head coach: ‘About time’ GOP should reject the left's pessimism and the deficit trigger MORE  [D-N.Y.] and [Sen.] Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenOvernight Regulation: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court battle | Watchdog to investigate EPA chief's meeting with industry group | Ex-Volkswagen exec gets 7 years for emissions cheating Overnight Tech: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court fight | Warren backs bid to block AT&T, Time Warner merger | NC county refuses to pay ransom to hackers Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE [D-Mass.] instead of his constituents, and they will vote accordingly in 2018,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Bob Salera said in a statement.

But Democrats believe the typical GOP strategy of tying more moderate Democrats to coastal liberals won’t work with Donnelly, pointing to a recent Georgetown University Bipartisan Index that found Donnelly to be the second-most bipartisan lawmaker in Congress.

“No matter how much Washington Republicans try to distort Joe’s record, they won’t be able to change the facts that Hoosiers are familiar with,” Baskin-Gerwitz told The Hill.

Whichever Republican candidate emerges from the primary will become a part of the Republican push to win vulnerable Senate seats. And while Donnelly can wait for his challenger to come to him, he won’t go entirely unscathed in the meantime.

Conservative groups have already held his feet to the fire on issues like confirming Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. And with Republicans bullish on the state, Republicans expect more ads to come.

“With the amount of outside spending coming, while Republicans might be beating each other up with primary voters, there will be massive air cover from outside groups exposing Joe Donnelly and his liberal record,” the Rokita ally said.

“By the general, Donnelly will be beat up just as much as a Republican candidate, if not more.”