Senate GOP Primary Features Many Attacks, Few Policy Differences

May 1, 2018

There are three Republicans vying for a chance to unseat incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) – former state representative Mike Braun, Rep. Luke Messer (R-Greensburg) and Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Brownsburg). Their race has been dubbed one of the nastiest in the country. It's a campaign where attacks have been many, while policy differences are few.

The Senate Republican primary was rough even before it began, with Messer and Rokita trading barbs even before they became candidates. The addition of Braun did nothing to quell the sparring, and the airwaves are blanketed with attack ads.

But the candidates also have a lot in common, and each aligned himself with President Donald Trump.

“Hoosiers liked him when he ran and like him now, if not better, because he represents something different,” Braun says.

Braun says his Senate run was inspired by Trump’s presidential campaign.

For his part, Messer says he supports the president’s policies because he thinks most Hoosiers support them.

“Frankly they appreciate the most important personal attribute of this president – that he’s a fighter, that he’s willing to challenge the status quo,” Messer says.

And Rokita says Hoosiers like Trump’s unpredictability.

“He is turning political correctness on its head and I think that’s for a lot of folks, including me, that’s refreshing,” Rokita says.

And that support for President Trump extends even to decisions that could be unpopular with key constituencies – including farmers. The president’s decision to impose tariffs on Chinese imports prompted retaliatory Chinese tariffs. That has Hoosier farmers worried it could hurt their industry.

Braun brushes aside those worries.

“That’s if, and it’s hypothetical, and I trust President Trump and his group of advisors to make the right calls there,” Braun says.

Messer says he understands farmers’ concerns.

“And so the details of how we roll this out over time will be important. But I trust the president to implement it in a way that’s good for Hoosier farmers,” Messer says.

Rokita says he wants to play an active role in that implementation.

“As these targeted tariffs play out, I’m going to make sure that no sector – agriculture or any other one – is inequitably hurt by this,” Rokita says.

They also all agree with the president’s recent targeted airstrikes in Syria. They’re in line on medical marijuana – they don’t support it. And they’re of one mind on Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation – they all say it needs to end. They also tout the Trump administration’s federal tax reform, which Messer and Rokita voted for, and Braun says he would have.

But despite all those similarities, the candidates mostly focus on tearing each other down.

Rokita calls his fellow candidates “flawed.”

“With regard to my two opponents, I’m not waiting until October or November or whenever it is for Joe Donnelly to stick a fork in him,” Rokita says.

Messer is more specific.

“In Mike Braun, you’ve got a candidate who is a lifetime Democrat, now says he’s a conservative. Todd Rokita has run around the state with a MAGA hat on, with a cardboard cutout over his shoulder, pretending he has the Trump-Pence support,” Messer says.

Braun also invokes the president in his attacks.

“Rep. Messer was a ‘Never-Trumper’ and now we know that Rep. Rokita called him vulgar and not presidential,” Braun says.

The rhetoric received national attention. But the candidates say they’re not bothered by it.

“We’re going to be united; we’re going to be fine," Rokita says. "This primary is a cleansing process.”

Braun says he’ll back whoever emerges from the primary.

“I’m gonna be behind the conservative candidate that is a Republican winner, sure,” Braun says.

Messer won’t quite make that same pledge.

“We’re not contemplating any other option but the fact that we’re going to win this primary and this campaign," Messer says. "We are optimistic when that happens, we’ll be able to bring everybody together.”

In the primary’s final debate, Messer suggested most voters are undecided heading into the final week. If that’s so, their choice could come down to which candidate’s style, as opposed to substance, is most appealing.