Three contenders vying for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in Indiana and the right to challenge incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) squared off in a hard fought debate in Indianapolis on Tuesday night.
Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN), a former Indiana Secretary of State, attacked former State Rep. Mike Braun, owner of a multi-state trucking company, for his voting record in support of 45 tax increases, and hit Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN) for what he said were his poor chances of defeating Donnelly.
Donnelly is one of ten Democratic senators up for re-election in 2018 in a state Donald Trump won in 2016, and is considered one of the most vulnerable of those ten. The Cook Political Report and Rasmussen Reports both rate the 2018 U.S. Senate race in Indiana a “toss up.”
Braun, who is largely self-funded, has raised the most money, but Rokita and Messer have about the same amount of cash on hand as Braun.
“Fundraising began to pick up in the third quarter of 2017 for this race, with U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita reporting $450,000 raised and his colleague in the U.S. House, Luke Messer, reporting $735,000. State Rep. Mike Braun had the biggest haul at approximately $1 million, with $800,000 of that total being self-funded,”Ballotpedia reported.
“The fourth quarter of 2017 showed stagnation in fundraising for Rokita and Messer, who raised $456,000 and $430,000, respectively. Braun raised $250,000 but boosted his receipts with $1.75 million of his own money. All three candidates had about $2.4 million in cash on hand heading into 2018, although Messer had a slight lead over his opponents,” Ballotpedia noted.
The only publicly reported poll was conducted by GS Strategy Group for Rokita in January, and shows Rokita with 24 percent, Braun with nine percent, and Messer with nine percent, with 58 percent undecided among likely Republican primary voters in Indiana.
Debate moderator Tony Katz, a popular conservative talk show host in Indiana and long-time Tea Party activist, held all three candidates’ feet to the fire on the issues throughout the evening.
In his opening remarks, Rokita hit both of his opponents.
“Mike, welcome to the Republican Party. Luke, welcome back to Indiana,” Rokita began.
Though elected to the Indiana House of Representatives as a Republican in 2014, Braun voted in Democratic primaries for many years before that.
“It was a far-from-subtle reference to Braun’s lengthy history of voting in Democratic primary elections, which lasted until 2012, as well as Messer’s decision to sell his family’s Indiana home and relocate to suburban Washington, D.C,” the Associated Press reported.
Dressed casually without a coat or tie, Braun attacked both Rokita and Messer–each dressed in suit and tie– as “lawyers that never really practiced, career politicians,” a description he applied to Donnelly as well.
Messer tried to stay above the fray, focusing his attacks on Donnelly, the Democrat incumbent.
Moderator Katz asked several direct questions of the three candidates that attempted to secure clear and specific answers. Some answers were less than fully responsive.
Katz specifically pressed all three to address the spending in Washington, which he called “disgusting and reckless.”
In light of the recent budget deal, Katz asked the candidates to “show me the difference between the GOP and Democrats on spending” and asked in addition for “two things you would do” to reduce spending.
Messer conceded that the recently passed spending bill was “not a perfect bill.”
“I made the choice to vote with President Trump and vote for our troops,” Messer added.
The “biggest challenge” our country faces, he said, is that “the Senate has a set of rules that allow a filibuster to put the minority party in charge.”
“It’s a tool of partisan gamesmanship,” Messer added, adding it is “making it difficult for our country to function.”
Messer was less specific in addressing the two things he would reduce.
“We have reduced discretionary spending over the last five years. I like our efforts on Medicaid and Medicare,” he noted, adding that “we have to look at ways to secure social security and medicare too.”
Braun said “it’s hard to see the difference between the GOP and Democrats,” adding:
There’s a few people there I’ve respected. One guy that stands out is Rand Paul.
But you’ve got to have the backbone, the discipline.
It takes guys like me that are going to be able to go there and not be beholdimg to anyone. You can’t have selective conservatism.
Braun, however, refused to name two specific cuts he would make in the budget, opting instead for across the board cuts.
“Until you look at everything across the board, who is going to say, yes, let’s cut mine, and no one else’s?” he asked.
“I get there, you’re going to have to prioritze a little bit. Listen to Rand Paul, listen to a guy like Tom Coburn,” he added.
Rokita framed the question a little differently, grouping “establishment Republicans” in with Democrats.
“The difference between Dems and establishment Republicans and Republicans is we are telling people what the problem is,” Rokita said.
“I carried the Medicaid block grant bill … we finally got it one vote away from getting to President’s desk … Joe Donnelly stopped that,” he noted.
“Just like Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, President Trump has inherited a mess,” Messer said, noting that “the accumulated national debt doubled in the eight years of the Obama presidency.”
Moderator Katz was not satisfied with any of the answers from the three candidates, so he asked them to try again.
“With all due respect we didn’t get differences” between the GOP or Democrats. “What two cuts would you make?” he asked again.
“That’s not a question you can answer,” Braun responded.
“I’m for taking the entire federal spending and baselining it and freezing it. There is no way unless you do it comprehensively that you are going to make any progress. I’ll stick with that answer,” he told Katz.
“You block grant funding back to the states … if you’re able to that do that over time,” you can reduce spending, Messer answered.
Rokita then gave four specific cuts
“One, I block granted Medicaid. Two, TANIF and Foodstamps are two other programs I would cut. Three. I will write or co-sponsor a bill to abolish the Department of Education. Four. Public broadcasting. If the liberals want to fund the broadcast of a terrible set of ideas they can pay for it themselves,” he answered.
Katz then asked all three candidates if they support tariffs.
“Over the years I’ve created more jobs than either one of these two guys. I’ve been growing a business. When it comes to tariffs, I understand it viscerally. I’ve done it with free open competition. We’re in a global economy now,” Braun began.
“In general, when it comes to tariffs, I don’t think I would be for that,” he continued, adding:
You want competitive free enterprise, competitive markets.
If you try and start to fix tariffs, it doesn’t need to be done.
We need to have free markets, but don’t get punched by your competitors.
“You know what, I really like what the president has done because of ideas like this. He wants to look at NAFTA. Mr. Braun is benefiting from that in his company. Most of the parts he ships are from Mexico or China, displacing American workers,” Rokita answered.
“I’m with the president. Bad deals need to be put in perspective or reversed,” he added.
“Indiana’s working families need good jobs. I believe this issue is one of the driving factors in President Trump’s election,” Messer said.
Messer added that the country has benefited “with the Trump policies that have come forward.”
“President Trump is for trade, but he’s for smart trade,” he added, noting that he agrees with the president on that.
Within minutes of the debate’s end, the Rokita campaign sent out a press statement with this headline “Rokita: Mr. Braun is responsible for the largest tax increase in Indiana history.”
The Braun campaign’s statement said, “Mike Braun dominates first debate.”
Indiana has one of the earliest primary elections in the country, less than three months from now, on May 8.