Indy Senate GOP Primary Veers Towards Three-Car Pileup

TPM Illustration / Getty Images
April 9, 2018 6:00 a.m.
EDITORS' NOTE: TPM is making our COVID-19 coverage free to all readers during this national health crisis. If you’d like to support TPM's reporters, editors and staff, the best way to do so is to become a member.

Indiana Republicans are bracing for a three-car pileup in a key primary next month that will have major implications for the balance of the Senate.

Reps. Todd Rokita (R-IN), Luke Messer (R-IN) and businessman and former state Rep. Mike Braun (R) are battling for the right to face Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), arguably the country’s most vulnerable incumbent.

Strategists say each of the three could conceivably win the nomination —and beat Donnelly. But the primary has grown increasingly heated as the candidates approach the May 8 election, worrying some Republicans that it could leave the eventual nominee short on cash and wounded from a bruising race as they prepare for a tough general election fight that gives Republicans one of their best chances at a pickup this fall.

The nastier this gets and the more money these guys have to spend, the better this looks for Donnelly,” Ed Feigenbaum, the longtime editor of the nonpartisan Indiana Legislative Insight newsletter, told TPM.

Strategists in both parties think this will likely be a close general election no matter who wins the nomination, with Indiana’s natural GOP advantage balanced against Donnelly’s talents as a candidate and Trump’s unpopularity.

Donnelly won his seat in 2012 in large part because of his opponent’s flaws. After then-Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) beat longtime Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) in a tough primary, Republicans spent months trying to pull the party back together, only to see Mourdock blow it by declaring during a debate that pregnancy caused by rape “is something that God intended to happen.” Donnelly is unlikely to get that lucky this time, but has worked assiduously to raise his profile as a moderate Democrat with a populist streak and is better-positioned this time around.

You have to call it a jump-ball in the general election,” said Indiana-based GOP strategist Kurt Luidhardt. “Donnelly’s just a good candidate. … A lot of the old Republican donor community maintain good ties with him, and he does a really good job in Indiana appearing like he’s a moderate.”

Most Democrats would be happiest to face off against Rokita given his hard right views, tensions between him and many of the state’s GOP establishment, and his occasional penchant for tin-eared comments (like telling a female CNN anchor on-air in 2013 that she was “beautiful, but you have to be honest as well” and in a 2007 speech asking “Who’s the master and who’s the slave” in African Americans’ relationship with the Democratic Party).

“We feel confident Joe can beat any of them, but Rokita lends himself most closely to Richard Mourdock part two,” said one source close to Donnelly.

Rokita also has a strained relationship with many other Republicans in the state going back years that many blame on his difficult personality as well as a push opposed by most others in the party to end gerrymandering in Indiana.

“He does have a reputation for being prickly,” said Luidhardt, who worked on earlier races for Rokita and Messer and called both friends.

The race has been a relatively sleepy one so far. Strategists say voters are just starting to tune in, and Braun is the only one who’s had much in the way of paid advertising until now. But things are beginning to heat up.

Braun has spent the most by far on the race, almost $3 million on TV ads since the end of last year. That helped boost his name ID around the state, and has pushed him into the lead in private polling of the race. But curiously, the wealthy and largely self-funding candidate took his foot off the gas in ad spending after an early burst, and has cycled through a number of ads rather than focusing on one particular message.

Braun is the man to beat at this point. But Messer and Rokita are just starting to spend in earnest, and hope that once they reach relative parity on the airwaves they’ll be able to catch up. Polling of the race shows a relatively close contest between all three, though most Republicans think Messer is in third and risks becoming a non-factor if he doesn’t make a move soon.

Braun has hammered his opponents as career politicians, including in this memorable spot that unaligned Republicans say could help him draw the contrast he needs to stay ahead:

All three Republicans have bear-hugged President Trump in the race, attacking one another for not being sufficiently pro-Trump. But the sharp-elbowed Rokita has gone the farthest in this regard, donning a “Make America Great Again” hat in his latest ad as he attacked Braun for his Democratic past and Messer for criticizing Trump during the 2016 campaign.

“Mike Braun is nothing more than a series of TV ads trying to cover up for his record of voting for Democrats and hiking taxes. Meanwhile, Never-Trumper Luke Messer is the most underwhelming GOP Senate candidate in the country,” Rokita spokesman Nathan Brand told TPM.

Messer, in contrast with the other two, has mostly focused on positive TV spots showcasing his family and promising to promote the Trump agenda. 

A number of GOP strategists questioned whether his message was aggressive enough for a GOP primary, and wondered why Messer hadn’t been able to out-raise Rokita given his close ties to the GOP establishment including Pence’s network and House Republican leadership. But Messer’s team dismissed those concerns.

“Luke’s path to victory is people feeling like they know Luke better by the end of this race, that the other two guys are all talk and Luke’s action,” Messer campaign adviser Brad Todd told TPM. “Primary voters are frustrated that we control everything and not enough is getting done, and Luke has by far the biggest track record of someone who can get something done.”

Embracing Trump and Vice President Mike Pence won’t be as big a problem in Pence’s home state as elsewhere in the country. Even in deep-red Indiana, though, fealty to Trump may not be an asset in the general election. The president won the state by a 19-point margin, but recent polls have found about the same amount of voters approve and disapprove of the job he’s done as president.

Rokita, Braun and Messer have all had to grapple with some harsh news cycles. Messer has faced months of attacks for not living in the state (he moved his family out to D.C., selling his Indiana house while keeping a vacation spot in Tennessee, and co-owns a home with his mom that he stays at when in town). That’s a serious problem in a state where politicians including Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and former Rep. Dave McIntosh (R-IN) have lost races for similar transgressions.

Rokita faced embarrassing headlines early on for an internal staff memo that obsessively outlined how his employees must handle their interactions with him, and more recent ones questioning his use of $3 million in government funds to boost his name ID around the state.

Braun was the latest in the woodshed, facing rough headlines in recent days for pushing to cut taxes and regulations on the logging industry, changes he stood to profit from. He’s also taken heat in the primary for voting to raise the state gas tax to fund infrastructure projects.

Donnelly has also been dinged up, however – his family’s business has ties with Mexico, a problematic connection in the rust belt state.

The general election is likely to be driven heavily by outside groups. Donnelly had $5 million in the bank as of the end of last year, a decent sum but not enough to stay on the airwaves, and the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity has already been on TV attacking him, with Democratic super-PACs rushing to his defense. Rokita and Messer are both likely to emerge from the primary with little cash left, and while Braun can self-fund to some degree few think he’ll put up the tens of millions he’ll need for the race.

Democrats think all three Republicans have enough problems that the race will be competitive. And they hope that as the primary crescendoes, those vulnerabilities will be drawn in sharper contrast.

“You hope you have an opponent that’s not just a generic Republican, it’s someone people will frown upon,” said the source close to Donnelly. “That’s the permission slip you need in Indiana.”

Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Senior Editor:
Special Projects Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Publishing Associate:
Front-End Developer:
Senior Designer: