GOP Senate candidates trade barbs in brutal Indiana primary

GOP Senate candidates trade barbs in brutal Indiana primary
© Greg Nash/Wikipedia

Indiana’s Senate GOP primary is growing even more contentious as the May primary approaches, with all three candidates forced to play defense on stories that threaten to undercut the central themes of their campaigns.

The bruising primary season could end up weakening the candidate who emerges from the primary to take on Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyWatchdog accuses pro-Kavanaugh group of sending illegal robotexts in 2018 Lobbying world Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand MORE (D-Ind.), a top GOP target.

Rep Todd RokitaTheodore (Todd) Edward RokitaLobbying world Female Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations House passes year-end tax package MORE (R-Ind.), one primary hopeful, is dealing with stories that are unraveling his campaign’s narrative that he’s the consensus choice for backers of President TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham to introduce resolution condemning House impeachment inquiry Support for impeachment inches up in poll Fox News's Bret Baier calls Trump's attacks on media 'a problem' MORE.


Meanwhile, a new report Thursday centered on Rep. Luke MesserAllen (Luke) Lucas MesserK Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers Yoder, Messer land on K Street House GOP to force members to give up leadership positions if running for higher office MORE’s (R-Ind.) previous drunk driving arrests, complicating his “All-American” persona.

And former state Rep. Mike Braun, who fashions himself as the outsider in the race, is defending himself after a recent report showed he pushed to cut taxes and regulations on timber companies — an industry in which he himself has a significant financial stake. 

“Contentious is maybe a diplomatic way of framing it,” one top Indiana Republican, who requested anonymity to give a candid analysis of the race, said about the tenor of the race.

“If this were all happening in the 2010 or the 2008 cycle, a lot of the stuff that would have come out against all of these guys would have been the end of their campaigns. But everyone is able to withstand it, and in some ways thrive on it, because of the environment we live in politically.” 

Rokita has spent the campaign tying himself as tightly to Trump as possible. He called himself “pro-life, pro-gun and pro-Trump” in his first campaign ad and donned a “Make America Great Again” hat in another.

The campaign has been largely about going on offense, but Rokita found himself on the defensive after two new reports cut against the idea that he’s a diehard Trump supporter. 

First, The Indianapolis Star unearthed a February 2016 interview with Rokita where the congressman, then supporting Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHouse passes bill taking aim at anonymous shell companies Turkey says soldier killed despite cease-fire in Syria White House staggers after tumultuous 48 hours MORE (R-Fla.) in the presidential primary, referred to Trump as “vulgar, if not profane” and said that “at some point, you have to be presidential.”

Those comments come as Rokita’s campaign has repeatedly sought to bludgeon Messer by playing footage of Messer questioning in June 2016 whether Trump can control his comments and that “he hasn’t shown” whether he can be presidential.   

Rokita also reportedly earned a rebuke from Trump’s political organization for using yard signs that could be seen as implying a Trump endorsement.

Rokita has been endorsed by two Republicans who led Trump’s Indiana campaign operations. But, according to The Associated Press, Rokita’s campaign may have taken things too far with new signs that read “Endorsed by Trump/Pence 2016 Indiana Team Leaders.” 

The AP reported that Trump’s presidential campaign asked Rokita to take down the signs and confirm in writing when the changes were made. 

Andrew Downs, a political scientist at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, told The Hill that he’s skeptical Rokita’s “vulgar” comments will have much of an impact because so many Republicans who may not originally have supported Trump can relate to the sentiment. That’s how Rokita explained it himself when pressed on the issue by CBS-4 in Indianapolis.

But Downs said that the yard sign situation could ultimately hurt more.

“There was clearly an attempt there to represent an endorsement of the Trump/Pence ticket ... that can be cast easily as an attempt to mislead,” he said. 

Rokita’s camp declined to discuss their yard signs. But Braun seized on the AP report in a brief campaign statement that gave Rokita the Trump-style nickname “Todd the Fraud.” 

While Rokita’s camp has been on the offensive, Messer’s camp has run a different style of campaign. Offering a less combative type of politicking, Messer has included his family in virtually all of his ads, which paint him as a compassionate family man who embraces Trump’s agenda. 

That brand could take a hit with a new Indianapolis Star report out this week about Messer’s past drunk driving convictions.

The article centers on Messer’s first run for office, when he was named by local party insiders to replace a state lawmaker killed by a drunk driver. It quotes a handful of party activists at the time who said that Messer didn’t disclose at the time that he himself had been convicted twice for drunken driving. 

Rod Meyerholtz, the Shelby County Republican Party chairman at the time, told the paper “that probably wouldn’t have went over too well if that had been known” and questioned whether it would have disqualified Messer from being a candidate.

The story also includes one top party official who said she was aware of Messer’s convictions before the vote, while the deceased lawmaker’s daughter said she spoke to Messer about the convictions — although she wasn’t clear whether that conversation came before or after the campaign. 

Messer campaign manager Chasen Bullock said in a statement that the congressman apologized for the DUI’s years ago, noting “both instances have been public and were used unsuccessfully by Republican and Democrat opponents in past campaigns.” He went on to frame the attack as a “dirty trick from Rokita’s supporters.”

But that hasn’t stopped Rokita’s campaign from blasting the story as a “sin of omission” by Messer. And it’s clear that the fact that the story is back in the headlines so close to the primary could dog Messer.

Braun, the businessman who has taken every opportunity to frame himself as the outsider, has troubles of his own. 

Braun has made a bit out of showing distance from Rokita and Messer, carrying around cardboard cutouts of the lawmakers and blasting them as “the Swamp Brothers” in a recent ad. He’s eschewed a jacket and tie during debates, opting for just a button-down shirt when he faces the suit-wearing congressmen.

With Rokita and Messer’s sparring taking center stage during the campaign, some Indiana Republicans believe Braun — who has dumped a significant amount of money into his campaign — has a clear shot at the nomination. 

That’s why the two congressmen dug into Braun during the most recent debate last week, attempting to chip away at the outsider frame by criticizing him for importing products in his business and for voting in previous Democratic primaries. 

They also hit Braun for a recent Indianapolis Star report that revealed that, while serving in the state House, Braun advocated for legislation that benefited the timber industry even as he held significant interests in the industry. Braun has denied that the legislation had “any direct impact on me personally.”

Democrats are celebrating the attacks on the GOP candidates’ narratives, pointing to the brutal primary as a boon for Donnelly.

Referring to the news cycle as “Oppo-calypse Now,” a reference to opposition research conducted by rival campaigns, Donnelly’s campaign wrote in a recent memo that the GOP “will have plenty of ammunition and negative press to throw at each other over the next month, as stories seem to be coming by the day to wreck each candidate’s narrative.” 

But the top Indiana Republican who spoke with The Hill pushed back on that idea, arguing that Republicans will have no problem competing against Donnelly in a state Trump won by 19 points in 2016. 

“The stuff is going to come out now or in October, so which do you prefer? Any rational political mind would say now,” the Republican said.

“You don’t want anything to come out in October and upset a sure thing.”