INDIANAPOLIS – Congressman Todd Rokita and businessman Mike Braun engaged in figurative fisticuffs Tuesday while Congressman Luke Messer stood largely unscathed in the middle.
It was the first debate of a contentious primary fight for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination. The winner hopes to unseat Democrat Joe Donnelly, and the race is widely considered to be key in determining control of the Senate.
Rokita wasted no time launching the fireworks by welcoming Braun back to the Republican Party. It was a dig at the fact that Braun consistently voted with Democrats from at least 1996 until 2012.
Rokita also welcomed Messer back to Indiana, referring to the fact that Messer and his family live in McLean, Virginia, and keep a vacation house in Tennessee. Messer sold a home in Indiana two years after his election to Congress in 2012 and says a two-bedroom house he co-owns with his mom in Greensburg is the family's Indiana residence.
From there, the debate, put on by Americans for Prosperity of Indiana, focused mostly on fiscal and economic issues. The one area where Messer and Rokita – both veteran congressmen – differed was a recent vote on a $400 billion budget deal that sharply boosted spending and the federal deficit while ending a brief federal government shutdown.
Messer said he voted for it at the request of President Donald Trump and to support the military and national security.
“The men and women serving in our military are under great strain, and our military is underfunded,” he said. “It's the choice our commander in chief gave us, and he could have been no clearer in what he asked us to do.”
But Rokita said, “I don't vote for bills that spend money that has yet to be printed, and that's exactly what's going on right now.”
He called it a false choice to say it's either increase military spending or put debt on our children. Real leadership in the Senate could have stopped that, he said.
Rokita has served the 4th District in Congress since 2011 and before that was Indiana's secretary of state. Despite his long tenure in government, he has campaigned on a plan to “defeat the elite.”
Messer, R-6th, generally stayed out of the fray and focused the most on Donnelly – three times saying that the sitting senator talks conservatively in Indiana and then votes with Democrat leaders 85 percent of the time in D.C.
He said Donnelly would like what was happening at the debate.
“The only way Democrats can win this state is when Republicans are divided and throw stones at each other,” Messer said.
Messer has been in office since 2012. Previously he served in the Indiana legislature, led a nonprofit and was executive director for the Indiana Republican Party.
Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said the debate shows that all three of the candidates are out of touch with Hoosier voters.
“This was an opportunity for Congressman Messer, Congressman Rokita and Rep. Braun to present real solutions. But outside of their full-throated endorsement of Joe Donnelly's Right-to-Try Act, we only got the same personal attacks and mudslinging that made this the 'nastiest race in politics' months ago.”
Rokita seemed to focus more of his attention on Braun – a businessman running as an outsider to the career politics of D.C.
As founder and CEO of Meyer Distributing and owner of Meyer Logistics, Braun has employees in at least 38 states and the corporate headquarters are in Jasper, Indiana.
Braun said he would not have voted for the budget deal.
He also tried to defend his vote last year when serving in the Indiana House for a $1 billion road funding bill that included a major state gas tax hike. Rokita pointed to dozens of other small tax or fee increases approved by Braun when in the GOP majority.
“That's what happens when politicians don't do their jobs,” Braun said. “That's when you solve problems, when overpasses are falling into the next level.
“Even in our state, where we're fiscally conservative and do things mostly right, infrastructure is a tough one.”
None of the three said they would support an increase in the federal gas tax recently floated by Trump.
Braun questioned why Hoosiers should give Messer or Rokita a promotion given the job approval rating of the U.S. House.
Another area that showed a bit of difference was whether Indiana should legalize medical marijuana. All three men were supportive of a right-to-try effort allowing experimental medicine or therapies for terminally ill patients. So the moderator wondered the same thing about medical marijuana.
Messer said states should wait and see what happens in Colorado in the next few years, and Rokita said he won't support marijuana as a gateway drug, though he has some support for marijuana derivatives with no THC.
Only Braun seemed outright supportive, saying, “if you believe in free markets and freedom of choice, the answer is yes.”
Early in the race, the candidates have focused heavily on fundraising. Messer and Rokita both had about $2.4 million at the end of 2017. Braun had a similar amount, but most was his own money. Donnelly has amassed more than $5 million.