Everything you need to know about Indiana’s nasty Republican Senate primary

Virtually indistinguishable on the issues, the candidates have launched a series of vicious personal attacks against each other.

Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., talks with a tour group from Daleville, Ind., on the Senate steps on October 18, 2017. CREDIT: Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., talks with a tour group from Daleville, Ind., on the Senate steps on October 18, 2017. CREDIT: Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Tuesday marks one of the first major election days of the 2018 cycle, and while the drama in West Virginia has drawn the most attention, voters in Indiana are picking between three Republicans running for Senate, marking the end of one of the nastiest primaries of the 2018 cycle. The winner will face one of the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrats, Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), this November.

State Rep. Mike Braun (R) and Reps. Todd Rokita (R-IN) and Luke Messer (R-IN) are virtually the same candidate three times over. Though there is little public polling, operatives on both sides reportedly consider Braun the frontrunner.

The three men share nearly every policy position, they all attended the same university, and they’ve all built their campaigns around the promise to full-throatedly support President Trump if elected.

Nasty personal attacks

But their similarities haven’t made them friendlier to each other. The race, devoid of much policy debate, has devolved into personal attacks.


In the first month of the race alone, as The Washington Post recently noted, Rokita attacked Messer’s wife for the thousands of dollars she’d been paid as a government contractor, which prompted Messer to say that Rokita was “lying about [his] family.” Rokita hit back, calling Messer “unhinged,” and then, not long after, someone leaked Politico an eight-page memo on the agonizing task of chauffeuring Rokita.

It’s dragged on like that for a full year now.

More recently, Messer’s two decades-old drunk driving convictions have come to the forefront of the race, convictions he didn’t disclose when he replaced a state representative who was killed by a drunk driver.

“Luke Messer withholds his driving record when he is going to replace someone in office who was killed by a drunk driver,” Rokita said at an event. “The precinct committeemen, and we have a lot in the room, never would have allowed that. Luke Messer is not who he says he is.”

Later, the Indy Star reported that in 1990, the same year Messer received his first DUI, Rokita was pulled over for speeding. Police records from the incident revealed Rokita, who was 20 at the time, was arrested for illegal consumption and possession of a fake ID.


A campaign spokesperson said there was no comparison between Messer’s DUIs and Rokita’s arrest and blamed Messer for the report.

“This is another desperate attempt by Luke Messer to distract from being a repeatedly convicted DUI driver who failed to disclose his reckless drunken conduct when seeking to replace an elected official killed by a drunk driver,” Nathan Brand told the Indy Star last month. “As a 20-year old, Todd Rokita was cited for speeding and everything else being alleged was dismissed. There is no comparison to Messer’s repeat convictions for reckless drunk driving, endangering himself and others.”

And Braun hasn’t been able to stay above the fray. Braun has said he is a “lifelong conservative,” but he has voted in Democratic primaries and CNN reported was listed in RNC voter data as a “hard Democrat” until at least 2012.

“Mike Braun raises taxes like a Democrat so it’s not a surprise he votes for Democrats, too,” a Rokita spokesperson said of the report.

Braun, who has been self-funding his campaign, has made inroads as an outsider. In one ad, he carried around cutouts of Rokita and Messer and asked people on the street if they could tell them apart.

In another, he hit the two as the “swamp brothers,” hitting his rivals as “Todd the fraud” and “Luke the liberal.”

It’s all about Trump

When it comes down to policy, however, it’s all about Trump.

All three candidates have made their support for Trump and his agenda central to their ads, and Braun, a businessman, has pointed to his shared background with the president as proof he’s the best choice of the three.

On their websites where the three candidates have outlined their policy positions, all three hit the same high notes: Anti-abortion, pro-Second Amendment, anti-Obamacare, supporting Trump’s border security plans and tax cuts, as well as support for veterans.


“President Trump was right,” Braun’s website proclaims. “‘We must act immediately to secure the border by building a wall, crack down on criminal illegal immigrants and the Sanctuary Cities that protect them, end chain migration, and demand that every business verifies the immigration status of its workers to protect American workers.”

Messer’s own website says nearly the exact same thing.

“We can’t continue to reward people who come to our country illegally, while those who work hard and play by the rules struggle to get ahead,” it says. “It’s long past time to build a wall, secure our border, crack down on sanctuary cities, end tax credits for illegal immigrants and return to rule of law in America.”

Although Rokita doesn’t explicitly call for building the wall, he says he will “put an end to illegal immigration, dangerous sanctuary cities, and reckless chain migration.” Rokita also says we must “also make English our official language of the United States.”

Next up: Joe Donnelly

Whoever wins Tuesday will face Donnelly in November. A poll from last month considers Donnelly the fourth most vulnerable Senate Democrat, losing to a generic Republican 45 to 51. The race is considered a toss-up.

In 2012, Donnelly won the seat in a shocking upset over his Republican challenger after Republican Richard Mourdock said in a debate that pregnancies caused by rape were an act of God.

“I just struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize: Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen,” Mourdock said at the time.

Four years later, Trump won the state by 19 points, and now Donnelly is one of ten Democrats up for reelection in states Trump won.

Not unlike the Republican hopefuls, Donnelly has taken to touting his Trump bonafides.

In a February release, Donnelly’s campaign touted the fact that Donnelly voted with Trump 62 percent of the time, more than all but two other Democrats in the Senate.

“It’s higher than a previous presidential support score Joe earned during President Obama’s tenure,” the release from Donnelly’s campaign said. “Joe worked with the administration on several key issues last year, including passing tough sanctions on North Korea and addressing the scourge of opioid abuse. He also voted for the majority of the president’s cabinet and Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.”

A Morning Consult poll from last month found that Donnelly has a 42 percent approval rating in Indiana and 32 percent disapproval.