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Friday, May 04, 2018 1:00 am

Election preview

GOP hopefuls fight for separation

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

U.S. Senate

Mike Braun

Age: 64

Home: Jasper

Occupation: Founder and chief executive officer of Jasper-based Meyer Distributing Inc., a nationwide auto parts distributor; owns a related trucking and warehousing company, Meyer Logistics Inc.

Political affiliation: Republican

Political experience: Member of the Indiana House from November 2014 until resigning Nov. 1

Education: Wabash College; MBA from Harvard University

Luke Messer

Age: 49

Home: Greensburg

Occupation: Member of the U.S. House since 2013, representing east-central and southeastern Indiana's 6th Congressional District; chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee since November 2014; member of the House financial and education committees

Political affiliation: Republican

Political experience: Member of the Indiana House from May 2003 until November 2006; ran for U.S. House seats in 2000 and 2010; executive director of the Indiana Republican Party from 2001 to 2005

Education: Wabash College; law degree from Vanderbilt University

Todd Rokita

Age: 48

Home: Brownsburg

Occupation: Member of the U.S. House since 2011, representing west-central and northwest Indiana's 4th Congressional District; member of the House budget, education and transportation committees

Political affiliation: Republican

Political experience: Indiana secretary of state from December 2002 through December 2010

Education: Wabash College; law degree from Indiana University

Also
All 3 to campaign in area
The Republican U.S. Senate candidates will campaign today and Saturday in northeast Indiana. U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita has scheduled campaign stops today at 10:30 a.m. at the Back 40 Junction in Decatur; 11:45 a.m. at Allen County Republican Headquarters in Fort Wayne; 1 p.m. at Richard's Restaurant in Columbia City; 2:15 p.m. at Mad Anthony's in Warsaw; 4:30 p.m. at Chapman's Brewery in Angola. Rokita, Mike Braun and U.S. Rep. Luke Messer are scheduled to speak at the Noble County Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner, which begins at 6 p.m. today at the Kendallville Event Center. Messer will campaign Saturday at 2 p.m. at Nick's Kitchen in Huntington and at 3:45 p.m. Saturday at Allen County Republican Party Headquarters.

Indiana Republicans will nominate for the U.S. Senate a white, middle-aged man who graduated from Wabash College, is a former state government official and who wholeheartedly supports President Donald Trump.

The future nominee favors tax cuts, building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and reworking trade agreements with other nations. He opposes abortion rights, gun control and the Affordable Care Act.

He is Mike Braun, Luke Messer or Todd Rokita.

Before Tuesday's primary election, Republican voters must decide what distinguishes a GOP Senate candidate from the others. Despite their many similarities, the three men have tried to establish distinct identities in their advertisements, public appearances, media interviews and debates.

Former state lawmaker Braun is the business-building, job-creating, small-town entrepreneur, a self-financed political outsider who knows firsthand the burdens of federal taxes and regulations.

U.S. Rep. Messer, also an ex-state legislator, is the son of a single mother, a high school and college football player who learned to never quit and is “laser-focused” on unseating the Democratic incumbent.

U.S. Rep. Rokita is the attack dog who sleeps in his Capitol Hill office, flies a plane, is raising a special-needs child and knows every part of Indiana from his time as its secretary of state.

One of these three will challenge Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in the Nov. 6 general election.

Political analysts regard that contest as a toss-up no matter which Republican emerges, thanks to Trump's 19-point victory in Indiana in the 2016 presidential election. With the GOP clinging to a 51-49 Senate majority, Indiana could help decide which party controls the chamber in 2019.

A Senate term is for six years. The job pays $174,000 a year.

As their campaigns have worn on, Braun, Messer and Rokita have been increasingly determined to prove that each is, as news media have phrased it, the Trumpiest of all, even as polls have shown the president's approval and disapproval rates about even among Hoosier voters.

“Who do you think among us on the stage is going to be more like President Trump?” Braun asked the audience at an April 23 debate in Fort Wayne. “Who has built their cred in the private sector? Who has got the pathway that makes them the independent thinker and that won't go to Washington and just go with the flow?”

Braun declared that he would be “the true reinforcement for President Trump.”

But wait: Messer repeatedly has called for Trump to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, formally nominating him this week for his efforts to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons. And Rokita has carried a cardboard cutout of Trump to campaign stops and worn the president's signature “Make America Great Again” cap in TV ads.

Taking their cue from Trump, both lawmakers introduced legislation that would punish “sanctuary” cities that fail to deport undocumented immigrants. Messer's bill would withhold federal funds from such cities, while Rokita's measure would send municipal officials to prison.

With so little daylight between them on public policy and all things Trump, the candidates have slammed one another for whatever they can turn up.

Rokita has hammered at Braun for voting in Democratic primary elections and his company for distributing foreign-made automobile parts.

Rokita has pounded at Messer for buying a house for his family in suburban Washington, D.C.

“Joe Donnelly is going to eat them alive with their vulnerabilities,” Rokita insisted at their first debate, in Indianapolis.

Braun has accused the other two of being identical career politicians. One of his ads labeled them “Swamp Brothers” – “Todd the Fraud” and “Liberal Luke.”

Messer has claimed in recent weeks to be the only one of the three who is being truthful.

“I am who I say I am, and they're not,” he has said time and again at debates and campaign stops as he questioned Braun's party preference and Rokita's opposition to federal spending legislation signed by Trump.  

In January, Messer easily won a straw poll at the Indiana Republican Party's Congress of Counties, with Rokita finishing second and Braun third in what at the time was a six-candidate field. But Rokita claims to be leading in polling, and the wealthy Braun has lent his campaign $5.4 million.

The contest looks like a free-for-all in the mold of the 1998 Republican primary for the state's other Senate seat. Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke won that battle with 35 percent of the vote, followed by John Price with 33 percent and Peter Rusthoven with 31 percent. Helmke lost that year's general election to Democratic former governor Evan Bayh.

“Three-way races for an open seat are probably the hardest thing to predict,” Helmke said in a recent telephone interview.

Helmke said Braun can win the nomination if Hoosier voters buy his argument that he's an outsider and Messer and Rokita are cut from the same cloth – they have voted alike in Congress 95.5 percent of the time, according to the news organization ProPublica. Helmke said his own Senate campaign was helped by his being a moderate mayor from Fort Wayne when his rivals were conservative Indianapolis attorneys who had not held office.

“In a three-way race, if there's some way that two of them are lumped together, that gives some sort of advantage to the third one,” said Helmke, who directs the Civic Leaders Living-Learning Center at Indiana University in Bloomington.

“Just as Trump did during the Republican primaries in '16, playing the outsider is a good card to play,” he said.

Rokita can win because of his longtime electoral base and name recognition, Helmke said. Rokita twice has won statewide election, and he has been nominated and elected four times in his congressional district.

“In a low-turnout primary, the person who's had people vote for him the most before is the one that's going to win, and that gives Rokita an edge,” said Helmke, a second-place finisher in a three-way fight for a GOP congressional nomination won by Dan Coats in 1980.

And Messer can win because he is “more of the traditional central-Indiana Republican establishment candidate,” Helmke said. Messer is a former executive director of the state GOP.

“If Messer wins, it's because he's got that base,” Helmke said.

“The bottom line: I wouldn't be surprised by any result here,” he said.

bfrancisco@jg.net