WARSAW, Ind. — Nine-dollar all-you-can-eat fried Alaska pollock brings out hungry Hoosiers — and plenty of politicians.
At last week’s Kosciusko County fish fry, a biennial fundraiser for the local GOP, all three Republican Senate candidates in Indiana worked the room of long communal tables laden with campaign literature.
Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer and former state Rep. Mike Braun had come from different events around the state earlier that day. Two of them — Rokita and Braun — would later that night again eye each other from across the room at a Lincoln Day Dinner farther north.
Watch: A Loyalty Contest for Trump in Indiana
Indiana is no stranger to divisive GOP primaries. It’s become a cliché that this year’s three-way race is the ugliest Senate primary in the country, with West Virginia tied or in close second. There are no former federal prisoners on the ballot here; just three graduates of Wabash College, a small private school for men.
Early voting begins Tuesday, so this is the final stretch before the May 8 primary. President Donald Trump isn’t expected to weigh in on the internecine battle in Indiana, where he all but clinched the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. But he’s everywhere in this race.
With few policy differences among the three candidates (all like the idea of Trump’s tariffs), the race has quickly devolved into a Trump loyalty contest — so much so that Rokita once calling the president “vulgar” is now seen as a vulnerability.
This primary will be a good test of the kind of Trump imitation base voters will reward.
But as Republicans across the country have seen since 2016, replicating Trump’s success is more complicated than just copying his rhetoric. The winner in Indiana will face Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly in a Toss-up race.
The hard-charging congressman
First elected in 2010, Rokita is the vice chairman of the House Budget Committee. He’s trying to run against the establishment, touting his vote against the omnibus spending bill last month.
“This is not a time for country club Republicans,” he said without irony at the Glendarin Hills Golf Club last Wednesday, where Steuben County Republicans had gathered for their Lincoln Day Dinner.
He often names-drops Florida Republican Ron DeSantis, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, as someone he works with. “He’s on Fox News a lot,” he told a small group of supporters in South Bend.
Rokita’s ads deploy the most conservative rhetoric — he calls for making English the official language and attacks liberal elites “for rioting in our streets.” He dons a “Make America Great Again” hat in his most recent TV ad.
The president appeared, in life-size cardboard form, at a small gathering for Rokita in the backroom of a South Bend chocolate shop last week. Trump’s yellow-and-blue striped tie matched the “Defeat the Elite” campaign backdrop behind him.
Just the day before, The Associated Press had resurfaced a February 2016 interview in which Rokita called then-candidate Trump “vulgar, if not profane.” Rokita had endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the presidential primary.
Rokita didn’t see anything hypocritical about his past remarks and his current embrace of the president.
“I think Trump is not politically correct, and I love it,” he said. “As I got to know President Trump more, I got to like it.”
Trump’s Indiana 2016 campaign chairman and vice chairman have endorsed his campaign.
Rokita previously served two terms as Indiana secretary of state and purchased surplus police vehicles for his two statewide runs. This year, he’s putting hundreds of miles a day on an unmarked Chevrolet Tahoe, and on the Lincoln Day Dinner circuit, he reminds the audience of the last time he visited their town.
Hoosiers seem to either love him or hate him. Many have their own anecdotes that have less to do with his support for Trump and more about the time years ago that he was rude to their kid or sat in their living room attentively listening to their problems.
Braun and Messer blame Rokita for starting the attacks in this race.
“This is a very cleansing process,” Rokita said, taking a swig of Mountain Dew in the passenger seat of his Tahoe. “There is no sense in letting Joe Donnelly wait until October to stick a fork in a candidate who has a ton of baggage.”
At Bekah’s Westside Cafe in Lebanon last week, Braun greeted supporters and plenty of regulars who stopped in for breakfast. Pancakes, eggs and hashbrowns were $6.50.
A Hillary Clinton voter wearing a Patagonia jacket had driven from Indianapolis to support Braun, the CEO of an automotive parts distribution company, because he likes his business experience and thinks it’ll make him more independent.
But many in the restaurant were Trump supporters.
“What did Obama say? We stick to our guns and religion? That’s probably true,” said Bill, a Vietnam veteran wearing a U.S. Marine Corps hat, dining with three friends.
They’d seen some of Braun’s ads and specifically mentioned one in which he carries cardboard cutouts of his opponents and asks people on the street if they can tell the two congressmen apart. It was inspired by their first debate, to which Braun showed up in a dress shirt and no tie, while Rokita and Messer wore nearly identical suits and ties.
On the trail last week, he stuck to another French blue dress shirt, while Rokita and Messer looked remarkably similar with fleece vests layered over their button-ups.
Braun’s opponents accuse him of being a Democrat since he voted in Democratic primaries for more than a decade and voted for a gas tax increase in the Legislature (that a Republican governor signed). He was elected as a Republican in 2014 and resigned last fall to focus on his Senate campaign. Braun argues that conservatives in southern Indiana had to vote in Democratic primaries if they wanted to have a say in local government. He denies having weighed in on any federal races in Democratic primaries.
Whatever Braun may have lacked in his early ground game, he’s tried to make up for with television advertising. He had loaned his campaign $3.2 million by the end of 2017.
“That’s a huge dynamic,” Rokita said.
The Pence ally
Bill, the Marine veteran at Bekah’s Westside Cafe, wasn’t sure who’d he vote for.
“Messer’s a move-in, right?” he asked.
He’s not. The three-term congressman, who serves as the fifth-ranking House Republican in the conference, was born and raised in Indiana.
And at that very moment, Messer was supposed to be kicking off a full day of public events in the state. But he didn’t make all of them because his flight from Washington, D.C., to Indianapolis was canceled.
He flew to Chicago instead, then drove to Valparaiso, in the northwest corner of the state, where he held a last-minute get-together with supporters at a gourmet burger joint and taped a remote hit with Fox News.
Unlike some Hoosier politicians who have struggled with the residency issue, Messer has been upfront about moving his family to McLean, Virginia, on his election to Congress. Having grown up in a single-parent household, he makes the case that his kids need a full-time father and invokes the Pences as a model.
Messer endorsed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the 2016 presidential primary. But in his ads and on the trail, he talks about his support for the Trump agenda. An outside group with ties to Vice President Mike Pence is now spending on TV ads to boost Messer.
But the optics of Messer flying into the state from D.C. in the middle of a congressional recess gave Rokita and the state Democratic Party fresh ammunition to accuse Messer of going “full Washington.”
“I had fundraising commitments and other things that put me where I was,” Messer said later that afternoon. “These races now are national in scope, so you tend to be all over the place.”
He denied that his residency makes running a statewide campaign harder.
“I think my logistics really aren’t any different than anyone else’s — particularly than Todd’s, he goes back and forth to D.C. too,” Messer said.
Besides where their families live, the only other major difference in the two members’ congressional experience has been votes on recent spending bills.
During the shutdown debate, Messer heavily pushed for an end to the Senate filibuster, an idea Trump has backed too. He’s the only Republican in the race who has yet to air a negative ad. On the campaign trail, he has two lines: “The Senate is broken,” and “Joe Donnelly is part of the problem.”
But even Republicans say they like Donnelly. The “Yes, he’s a nice guy” refrain is built into every Lincoln Day Dinner speech. But it’s quickly followed up by comparisons to Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
That makes Donnelly laugh. “I just passed a bank regulatory relief bill through the Senate where it was basically pitched combat with both of them,” he said over the phone from Indianapolis last week.
For Trish Brown, who’s backing Rokita but doesn’t like Trump, whether she votes Donnelly out will depend on who wins the GOP nomination.
Donnelly won his first term in 2012 by defeating Richard Mourdock, who lost support after making controversial comments about rape.
“I’m not opposed to Donnelly,” she said at the Kosciusko County fish fry. “Republicans gave him his seat. They Mourdocked him.”