Former state lawmaker Mike Braun and Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Brownsburg) traded barbs while Rep. Luke Messer (R-Shelbyville) tried to stay above the fray in the first debate of the 2018 Republican primary for Indiana’s U.S. Senate seat.
Rokita set the tone early, using his opening statement to jab his opponents with oft-repeated claims: that Braun is new to the Republican Party and Messer doesn’t live in Indiana.
“Only one contender up here,” Rokita says. “Two pretenders.”
Braun was happy to hit back, accusing Rokita and Messer of being, in his words, “career politicians.”
“These guys have spent a career creating roadblocks and doing things for most of us in business we’re not happy with,” Braun says.
Messer tried not to engage, criticizing his fellow candidates for not staying focused on incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.)
“The only way Democrats can win in this state is when Republicans are divided and throw stones at each other,” Messer says.
Apart from the traded attacks, the 90 minute exchange, sponsored by conservative group Americans for Prosperity-Indiana, was heavy on policy. And while the candidates didn’t always use the same language, their ideas often weren’t all that different.
In health care, all three agreed: repeal the Affordable Care Act. In entitlement reform: block grant programs like Medicaid and food stamps. On workforce development, they argued for better alignment of education and business.
There were some differences. Rokita recently voted against a federal spending bill that increased the deficit while providing military funding. Messer voted for it and defended that vote, starting a terse exchange.
“It’s the choice our commander-in-chief gave us. And he could have been no clearer…” Messer said.
Rokita interrupted, saying, “I don’t think he gave us that choice.”
“He could have been no clearer about what he asked us to do…” Messer said, as he tried to continue.
Rokita said, “He said he had to take the bill because that’s what we sent him.”
There was also a distinction drawn on a vote Braun took in the state legislature, to raise the gas tax for road funding. Rokita hammered him for that vote, while Braun argued it was a tough but necessary decision.
“What you’re getting here are two guys, especially the one on the end [Rokita], that’ll say or do anything to distort a situation and are part of the problem where they have not made the tough decisions,” Braun says.
Indiana’s primary election is May 8.