The first debate among Indiana’s three Republican Senate candidates began much as this primary race started — with some punches.
In his opening statement, Rep. Todd Rokita came out swinging. “Mike, welcome to the Republican Party. Luke, welcome back to Indiana,” he said.
Rokita was referring to businessman and former state Rep. Mike Braun, who’s been attacked for voting as a Democrat in the state, and to fellow Hoosier Rep. Luke Messer, who moved his family to Virginia to be closer to him in Washington, D.C. Residency issues are a frequent source of attacks in Indiana politics and have already become a source of contention between the two congressmen.
Americans for Prosperity-Indiana sponsored the debate Tuesday night, which was moderated by WIBC radio host Tony Katz in Indianapolis. The primary is on May 8.
All three contenders are graduates of Wabash College, a small men’s only liberal arts college in Indiana. Messer and Rokita dressed almost identically in suits and red ties, while Braun sported just a blue dress shirt — an undeniable attempt to distinguish himself as the “outsider.” It’s a refrain he repeated throughout the night, blaming the two congressman for being part of Washington’s dysfunction.
All three candidates tried to come off as President Donald Trump loyalists who would shake up Washington. Messer, a member of House GOP leadership, brought up his proposal to eliminate the legislative filibuster in the Senate several times.
One of the biggest substantive differences between Messer and Rokita in Congress came recently, when they voted differently on the budget deal earlier this month to keep the government open. Messer voted for it; Rokita voted against it.
“The last thing we should do is pile more debt on our kid and grandkids,” Rokita said when asked about his vote. He pointed out that he’d previously voted to fund the military.
Messer cast his vote as an order from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and the president. “He could not have been clearer about what he asked us to do,” Messer said of Trump.
Rokita fired back, saying “it’s a false choice” to have to choose between funding the military and growing the debt. With the right leadership, Rokita suggested, those choices wouldn’t be necessary.
“It’s the choice our commander in chief gave us,” Messer replied.
Standing by for this back-and-forth was Braun. When asked how he would have voted on the budget deal, he said he liked how Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul described the deal. Rokita jumped in, accusing him of being just another politician who couldn’t give a straight answer.
Braun has been under attack for voting for a gas tax increase in the state legislature. He explained on Tuesday how constituents told him to “fix the roads,” but said he’s vowed to never support a tax increase at the federal level.
Rokita then delivered a one-liner that may please Democrats. “If you nominate one of these two, Joe Donnelly will be the tax cutter in the race,” the congressman said.
Rokita echoed that sentiment in his closing remarks, telling the crowd: “There’s only one contender up here, and two pretenders. ... Joe Donnelly is going to eat them alive with the vulnerabilities.”
While Rokita has been trying to appeal as the Trump candidate in the race, Messer’s strategy has recently been trying to keep the focus on Donnelly.
“All the time spent throwing stones is time not spent on defeating Joe Donnelly,” he said at the debate. Shortly after the debate, Messer’s campaign released a statement calling him “the adult in the room.”
Braun pointed out that Rokita and Messer were throwing stones well before he got into the race. Blasting Rokita, Messer and Donnelly as “career politicians,” he called them all lawyers “who never really practiced” and touted himself as an entrepreneur. “Who would you trust in DC?” he asked.
Democrats slammed the debate for the infighting among the three GOP candidates.
“Outside of their full-throated endorsement of Joe Donnelly’s Right-to-Try Act, we only got the same personal attacks and mudslinging that made this the ‘nastiest race in politics’ months ago,” Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said, alluding to legislation Donnelly sponsored with Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson giving terminally ill patients access to investigative drug treatments.
“Maybe the Koch brothers found someone tonight with the right mix of far-right policies and a potentially salvageable campaign, but the only winner for Hoosiers is the bipartisanship and common sense of Joe Donnelly,” Zody added.
Elected to the Senate in 2012, Donnelly is running for a second term. He raised $1.2 million during the final quarter of 2017, ending the year with $5.3 million.
Rokita raised $459,000 in the final quarter of 2017, ending the year with $2.4 million. Messer raised $427,000 during the quarter and also ended 2017 with $2.4 million. Braun raised about $166,000 in the fourth quarter and loaned his campaign $2.35 million. He ended the year with $2.3 million.
Braun was the first candidate on the air, releasing his earliest TV ad in early November. The CEO of Meyer Distributing, an Indiana company that distributes automotive and truck accessories, pivots to immigration in his fourth ad buy released Tuesday.
In an early January poll conducted for the Rokita campaign, Rokita led among likely GOP primary voters with 24 percent to Messer’s 9 percent and Braun’s 9 percent. Fifty-eight percent of likely primary voters were undecided. GS Strategy Group surveyed 500 likely primary voters Jan. 6-9.