The first debate among Indiana’s three Republican Senate candidates began much as this primary race started — with some punches.
In his opening statement, Rep. Todd Rokita came out swinging. “Mike, welcome to the Republican Party. Luke, welcome back to Indiana,” he said.
Rokita was referring to businessman and former state Rep. Mike Braun, who’s been attacked for voting as a Democrat in the state, and to fellow Hoosier Rep. Luke Messer, who moved his family to Virginia to be closer to him in Washington, D.C. Residency issues are a frequent source of attacks in Indiana politics and have already become a source of contention between the two congressmen.
Americans for Prosperity-Indiana sponsored the debate Tuesday night, which was moderated by WIBC radio host Tony Katz in Indianapolis. The primary is on May 8.
All three contenders are graduates of Wabash College, a small men’s only liberal arts college in Indiana. Messer and Rokita dressed almost identically in suits and red ties, while Braun sported just a blue dress shirt — an undeniable attempt to distinguish himself as the “outsider.” It’s a refrain he repeated throughout the night, blaming the two congressman for being part of Washington’s dysfunction.
All three candidates tried to come off as President Donald Trump loyalists who would shake up Washington. Messer, a member of House GOP leadership, brought up his proposal to eliminate the legislative filibuster in the Senate several times.
One of the biggest substantive differences between Messer and Rokita in Congress came recently, when they voted differently on the budget deal earlier this month to keep the government open. Messer voted for it; Rokita voted against it.
“The last thing we should do is pile more debt on our kid and grandkids,” Rokita said when asked about his vote. He pointed out that he’d previously voted to fund the military.
Messer cast his vote as an order from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and the president. “He could not have been clearer about what he asked us to do,” Messer said of Trump.
Rokita fired back, saying “it’s a false choice” to have to choose between funding the military and growing the debt. With the right leadership, Rokita suggested, those choices wouldn’t be necessary.
“It’s the choice our commander in chief gave us,” Messer replied.
Standing by for this back-and-forth was Braun. When asked how he would have voted on the budget deal, he said he liked how Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul described the deal. Rokita jumped in, accusing him of being just another politician who couldn’t give a straight answer.
Braun has been under attack for voting for a gas tax increase in the state legislature. He explained on Tuesday how constituents told him to “fix the roads,” but said he’s vowed to never support a tax increase at the federal level.
Rokita then delivered a one-liner that may please Democrats. “If you nominate one of these two, Joe Donnelly will be the tax cutter in the race,” the congressman said.
Rokita echoed that sentiment in his closing remarks, telling the crowd: “There’s only one contender up here, and two pretenders. ... Joe Donnelly is going to eat them alive with the vulnerabilities.”
While Rokita has been trying to appeal as the Trump candidate in the race, Messer’s strategy has recently been trying to keep the focus on Donnelly.
“All the time spent throwing stones is time not spent on defeating Joe Donnelly,” he said at the debate. Shortly after the debate, Messer’s campaign released a statement calling him “the adult in the room.”
Braun pointed out that Rokita and Messer were throwing stones well before he got into the race. Blasting Rokita, Messer and Donnelly as “career politicians,” he called them all lawyers “who never really practiced” and touted himself as an entrepreneur. “Who would you trust in DC?” he asked.
Democrats slammed the debate for the infighting among the three GOP candidates.
“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,” Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said, alluding to legislation Donnelly sponsored with Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson giving terminally ill patients access to investigative drug treatments.
“Maybe the Koch brothers found someone tonight with the right mix of far-right policies and a potentially salvageable campaign, but the only winner for Hoosiers is the bipartisanship and common sense of Joe Donnelly,” Zody added.
Elected to the Senate in 2012, Donnelly is running for a second term. He raised $1.2 million during the final quarter of 2017, ending the year with $5.3 million.
Rokita raised $459,000 in the final quarter of 2017, ending the year with $2.4 million. Messer raised $427,000 during the quarter and also ended 2017 with $2.4 million. Braun raised about $166,000 in the fourth quarter and loaned his campaign $2.35 million. He ended the year with $2.3 million.
Braun was the first candidate on the air, releasing his earliest TV ad in early November. The CEO of Meyer Distributing, an Indiana company that distributes automotive and truck accessories, pivots to immigration in his fourth ad buy released Tuesday.
In an early January poll conducted for the Rokita campaign, Rokita led among likely GOP primary voters with 24 percent to Messer’s 9 percent and Braun’s 9 percent. Fifty-eight percent of likely primary voters were undecided. GS Strategy Group surveyed 500 likely primary voters Jan. 6-9.
Mitt Romney is running for Senate. He found new political life by bashing President Donald Trump — who on Monday proceeded to endorse him anyway. (Even a candidate video that sideswiped Trump at least twice wasn’t enough to deter the president.)
If we’re all lucky, Trump will stick with his endorsement and ease Romney’s path to succeed retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch in Utah, a state Romney won as a presidential hopeful in 2012 by a nearly 50-point margin over Barack Obama.
Romney was long ago branded a RINO (Republican In Name Only) by conservative activists, but that should be a feature for Republicans looking to hold the Utah Senate seat, not a bug.
Having Romney join the Senate, where he’d bring a moderate temperament and a handful of opinions that stray from what constitutes a Trump Republican these days, would be good for the GOP, good for America’s two-party system, and even good for our democratic institutions.
I know it’s hard to see how a man nicknamed “Mittens” in his last bid for the White House can save the republic.
But if you need proof that RINOs like Romney are essential to our democratic system, look no further than the indictments last week handed down by special counsel Robert Mueller, which detailed the incredible lengths Russian actors had gone to with the strategic goal of dividing Americans leading up to the 2016 elections.
Watch: Intelligence Officials Aware of Russian Activity Aimed at 2018 Elections
On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, teams of Russian social media specialists posed as Americans and created “political intensity” by supporting radical groups, opposing social movements, and sympathizing with users dissatisfied with their social and economic situations. The indictment also says Russians traveled to the U.S. and obtained visas under false pretenses, hired Americans to stage rallies designed to be offensive to other Americans, bought ads micro-targeted to Americans most vulnerable to provocative political content, and crafted messages encouraging minorities not to vote at all.
When Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictments last week, he said the ultimate goal of the entire Russian plot was to “promote discord and undermine democracy” in the United States.
We also know from recent reporting that Russians are still just as engaged in dividing Americans against each other as they ever have been.
After the horrible school shooting in Florida last week, Russian bots flooded social media platforms to push divisive messages about gun rights and gun control. Karen North, a social media professor at the University of Southern California, told The New York Times that the Russian bots “are going to find any contentious issue, and instead of making it an opportunity for compromise and negotiation, they turn it into an unsolvable issue bubbling with frustration.”
Every time Americans attack one another over politics, every time Congress retreats to its partisan corners on contentious issues like immigration or climate change or gun control, we are doing the Russians’ job for them. They want divisions, personal attacks, no agreement and no progress. Without voices in the middle looking for consensus and progress, that job gets easier for the Russians every day.
Voices in the middle aren’t just essential for our democracy, they’re also crucial for our two-party system. They’re extremely healthy for the Democratic and Republican parties, both of which make life harder for the moderates in their parties than they should.
Whether it’s Sen. Susan Collins in Maine or Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia, senators willing to find bipartisan solutions to the country’s problems have been the connective tissue between the two parties and the fuel for action on Capitol Hill. It’s no coincidence that as polarization has increased, the list of accomplishments on Capitol Hill has dropped like a rock.
For the GOP specifically, which has long prided itself on being “the party of ideas,” that’s a problem. Republicans’ ideas seem increasingly to come from the far right of the party and remain unchallenged until they’re unveiled to be voted on quickly. But undebated ideas are weak, and undebated principles aren’t principles at all — they are talking points.
On the day Romney announced his Senate run, he spoke at a Utah fundraiser and detailed the issues that had brought him back to politics, including addressing poverty and reducing carbon emissions.
Romney also praised the benefits of immigration, highlighted the atmosphere of respect on Utah’s Capitol Hill and, in speaking about gun violence, said, “We can’t just sit and hope and wait for things to get better.”
Romney’s comments were the stuff of RINO consensus-building that has made moderate Republicans on the right and DINOs (Democrats In Name Only) on the left an endangered species in Washington these days. But we kill off RINOs and DINOs at our own peril.
I’ve been reading a lot about endangered species lately (long story). In the process, I’ve learned that while all endangered species are important in their own ways, some endangered species are more important than others. The most important are the “keystone species,” which play a role in the survival of other animals, and in some cases, the survival of the habitat they all share and need to live.
RINOs and DINOs are Washington’s keystone species. The political ecosystem — even the super-predators who believe they should get credit for their own survival — cannot live without the ones who keep the place functioning and in balance.
Mitt Romney always seemed to believe he was meant for the most important job in Washington. If he wins his race, he may find that joining the Senate as a voice of moderation in an era when our very democracy is under attack is the most important job he could ever have.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.