Indiana GOP Senate candidates square off in raucous debate

Luke Messer (left), Todd Rokita, and Mike Braun (Photos supplied/Official headshots)

Candidates in Indiana’s Republican Senate primary squared off Tuesday night for a raucous debate that was much like the campaign: notable more for name-calling and bare-knuckled attacks than major policy differences.

That was apparent from the get-go, when Rep. Todd Rokita took a dig during his opening remarks at opponents, fellow congressman Luke Messer and former state lawmaker Mike Braun.

“Mike, welcome to the Republican Party,” Rokita said. “Luke, welcome back to Indiana.”

It was a far-from-subtle reference to Braun’s lengthy history of voting in Democratic primary elections, which lasted until 2012, as well as Messer’s decision to sell his family’s Indiana home and relocate to suburban Washington, D.C.

With all three candidates seeking to claim the mantle of most conservative and few major policy differences between them, most of what distinguished them was style.

Messer focused his attacks on Democrat Sen. Joe Donnelly, who the winner of the primary will face in November, while portraying himself as the only adult among the candidates. Rokita presented himself as an iconoclast supporter of President Donald Trump, intent on torching the GOP establishment. Braun, meanwhile, claimed to be an outsider businessman who built a successful auto parts distribution empire.

After one particularly heated back-and-forth, Messer lamented that his rivals were intent on attacking each other.

“I’ll tell you who most likes this exchange — Joe Donnelly,” Messer said. “The only way Democrats can win in this state is when Republicans are divided and throw stones at each other.”

Still, during the hour-and-a-half-long debate, there were some differences. Rokita attacked Braun over his 2016 vote in the Legislature for an infrastructure spending package that increased dozens of fees and hiked Indiana’s per-gallon fuel tax by 10 cents.

He also criticized Messer for voting in favor of a recent bipartisan spending bill, sought by Trump, as well as his past support in the Legislature for publicly funding of a sports stadium.

“If you nominate one of these two — guys who have raised taxes — Joe Donnelly will be the tax cutter in the race,” Rokita said.

Still, the attack was somewhat disingenuous. In 2015, Rokita advocated for the same sort of infrastructure-related tax increase Braun voted for.

“If we hadn’t done what we did there … we would never be addressing the problem,” Braun fired back. “Everyone involved knew the problem was … severe, and we did the right thing.”

It was just the latest exchange in a race that began with bitter personal attacks between Messer and Rokita before either officially entered the running.

Messer had initially hoped to coast to the GOP nomination. But Rokita elbowed his way into contention after The Associated Press reported on a lucrative contract Messer’s wife Jennifer has with the Indianapolis suburb of Fishers, which pays her $240,000 a year to do part-time legal work from home in suburban Washington.

Messer, who primarily resides in McLean, Virginia, says he lives with his mom whenever he is back home in Indiana.

Rokita, who claims to be a fiscal hawk, has been the subject of stories detailing his use of $3 million in public funds for self-promotional ads and mailers, as well as a reputation he developed as a high-maintenance boss who has created a toxic work environment.

The debate was sponsored by the Indiana chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a national political operation funded by billionaire industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch.