Senate rivals try to score points on Messer campaign commute

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

Indiana Senate candidate Luke Messer was a no-show at a campaign event with supporters in Kokomo on Wednesday, thanks to a canceled flight. He missed Gov. Eric Holcomb’s GOP fundraising dinner in November. And in September, he left an Anderson venue before Vice President Mike Pence name-checked him during a speech on the Republican-led tax overhaul.

Such are the difficulties — and liabilities — Messer has created for himself as he campaigns in an intense GOP primary while living in suburban Washington, D.C., more than 500 miles away.

When he’s not scrambling to catch a flight, the congressman and member of House leadership is taking votes, coaching his son’s McLean, Virginia, basketball team and trying to be a family man who makes it home for dinner and attends church on Sundays.

But in a divisive primary that has drawn national attention for its nastiness, that’s given his Republican rivals — and Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly’s allies — plenty of grist in a state where living elsewhere has doomed other elected officials, including former Sens. Evan Bayh and Richard Lugar.

“You can’t fault a person for wanting to be a father who is present and spends time with his family,” said University of Evansville political science professor Robert Dion. “But come on. If you need more time with your family, maybe being a federal lawmaker is not the choice for you.”

Messer says he’s always been upfront about his living situation. His own father wasn’t around, and Messer says he’s sought to balance political obligations with being active in his children’s lives. That’s the reason his family moved to Virginia after his 2012 election, where he was recently honored with a Coach of the Year award by his son’s McLean-based basketball league.

“Keeping the family together keeps Luke grounded,” said campaign manager Chasen Bullock. “He drops his kids off at school, eats dinner with them, and coaches them in youth sports, and he thinks that’s his responsibility as a dad.”

The logistical havoc of commuting by plane hasn’t gone unnoticed.

After he missed the Kokomo event this past week, the Indiana Democratic Party sent out an email blast questioning “what he was doing outside of Indiana in the first place” while Congress was in recess.

One opponent, fellow Rep. Todd Rokita, has gleefully highlighted times “Missing Messer” has been out of the state for prolonged periods. So has the other GOP candidate, businessman and former state Rep. Mike Braun.

The Messer family sold its Indiana home in 2014 and he now uses a two-bedroom home he co-owns with his mom as his in-state residence.

“Todd and I are going to be on the trail a lot together,” Braun said at a Gibson County GOP dinner in February. He went on to add, “Because the guy we’re running against, the third person in the race, does not live in the state anymore.”

For the record, Messer’s campaign said staff scrambled after he missed Wednesday’s event, booked a flight through Chicago and held an impromptu event in northwest Indiana. Messer made it to a GOP fish fry in Kosciusko County that night, the campaign said.

The campaign also disputes that he hasn’t been in the state, arguing he keeps a grueling schedule flying back and forth. By the time the May 8 primary hits, campaign staff estimated he will have been on the ground in Indiana 39 days since March 1, while splitting his time in Washington to take votes.

A local GOP official in Messer’s district, who at times has been at odds with the congressman, said Messer is engaged locally, though he’s heard grumbling.

“We haven’t had any issues. But I’ve heard him being disparaged because he’s coaching his kid’s basketball team, or he’s doing this, or not doing that,” said Robert Nolley, chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party. “People have to ask themselves if they want a guy who wants to spend time with his family. I can’t find an issue with that.”

It’s also not always realistic for politicians to make every event they are invited to. Running a campaign in the modern era requires candidates to spend an inordinate amount of time fundraising. And local GOP officials can be demanding with politicians’ time, while not always affording them an opportunity to address the crowd at an event.

He’s also not the first Indiana politicians to live out of state. That list includes Vice President Mike Pence when he was a congressman, as well as Republican Reps. Jim Banks and Larry Bucshon.

Still, the optics can be devastating in a major race.

Republican Sen. Todd Young developed a crowd-sourced campaign of Twitter users posting photos of Bayh flying out of Washington when the Democrat tried to retake his old Senate seat in 2016. Lugar, a Republican who moved to Washington in the 1970s, was criticized during his losing 2012 primary bid for lackluster campaigning and being out of touch with voters.

“If your priority is with your family, that is a beautiful thing. But that may not be a vote getter,” Dion said.