In the next three weeks, Hoosier Republican primary voters will have a fateful decision to make: Who will be their next U.S. Senate nominee, U.S. Reps. Luke Messer, Todd Rokita or Jasper businessman Mike Braun?
And the race just heated up on Friday as Messer began airing two TV ads assaulting his two opponents.
Republican primary voters are batting .500 on this crucial decision in the past two Senate races. In 2016, they chose Rep. Todd Young over Rep. Marlin Stutzman, and the Bloomington Republican did the almost unfathomable, which was to drub former governor and senator Evan Bayh. In 2012, Republicans decided to cast off U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, Indiana’s leading vote getter in history, for Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock.
Mourdock was an arrogant nominee as his campaign alienated Lugar voters in the weeks following his landslide primary victory. He refused most joint appearances with Democrat Joe Donnelly, while Republican leaders imposed handlers in an attempt to limit his incendiary rhetoric. His October debate fiasco is often cited for his defeat to Donnelly, but Howey Politics Indiana polling had Donnelly leading all fall and I believe he would have won without Mourdock’s blunder.
Since winning a Senate seat that had been in GOP hands for 36 years, Donnelly has visited all 92 counties each year and his approach has been one of general bipartisanship. He notes that he has voted with President Trump 62 percent of the time.
Braun, Messer and Rokita have been campaigning since mid-summer 2017 and are leaving distinctly different impressions. Braun has cast himself as the “outsider businessman” who achieved road funding accomplishments during his two terms in the Indiana House. He comes across as a no-nonsense curmudgeon, while ribbing the two congressmen as identical cardboard cutouts who have mired the nation with inertia.
Both Messer and Rokita have competed for the mantle of President Trump. Both have voted with him most of the time, though Rokita voted against the two recent Omnibus budget bills, saying it’s the Washington “swamp at its worst,” while Messer says he stood with Trump as well as funding the U.S. military. Trump regrets signing the bill which is expected to result in trillion-dollar deficits for the coming decade.
Messer had been upbeat, with his first TV bio ads having been positive and he hadn’t attacked his two Republican opponents. But that changed on Friday when two new ads began airing taking aim at Braun and Rokita. In his attack on Braun, Messer “he says he’s an outsider but he’s been a career politician 14 years.” Braun served 10 years on the school board in Jasper and two terms in the Indiana House. Messer said that Braun was a “Democrat” voted for President Obama and “voted to raise taxes 47 times.” That is in reference to Braun voting in Democratic primaries.
In his ad against Rokita, Messer said, “Todd Rokita pretends he always supports President Trump. But that’s not Todd Rokita’s record. He voted against trump’s military bill, against Trump’s border wall and Rokita was the only Republican against his plan for transportation. When it comes to supporting Donald Trump, Rokita is all hat and no action.” He also pulled up the Fox59 clip where Rokita called Trump “vulgar and profane.”
Rokita’s slogan is “defeat the elite,” even though he’s been an Indianapolis and Washington insider since 2002. He refuses to acknowledge interview requests, and won’t debate Braun and Messer in two upcoming events this month, though the three candidates will appear at an Allen County GOP debate on April 23. Rokita is positioning himself as the only pure Republican and shows little interest in working with independents, moderates and Democrats.
I have this race as a “Tossup,” but some trends are emerging. Braun has outspent Messer and Rokita by $1 million in TV and radio advertising. In a buying time competitive report, Braun has spent or reserved air time to the tune of $3,030,920, compared to $1,497,755 for Messer and just $551,389 for Rokita. To date, Braun has has spent or reserved 18,653 gross rating points on TV, compared to Messer’s 9,162 and 1,149 for Rokita. The assumption is it takes 1,000 gross rating points to get the “saturation” on a given message to move voters into your camp.
The three campaigns have spent $5,080,064 at this writing.
This is a critical juncture for the GOP primary. This analysis comes as the campaigns are preparing their first quarter Federal Election Commission reports. The advertising schedule suggests that Messer might have outraised Rokita. While Messer has reserved time from Thursday through May 7, Braun has not purchased time for the weeks of April 24 and May 1. Rokita’s air time purchases end after this week. Braun is mostly self-funding his campaign and is almost certainly awaiting the Messer and Rokita FEC reports before he makes ad-buy decisions for the final two weeks.
In addition to the FEC filings, the other thing is to watch for is what former congressman and HPI analyst Mark Souder calls the “major bomb” ads. It will be this weekend or by mid next week for such ads to begin airing in order to move the numbers, particularly the roughly 40 percent of undecided Republicans. Messer obviously became the first of the three to begin to turn up the heat.
We could see Rokita air “Mexico Mike” ads aimed at Braun’s Jasper company, or the “rich wife” ad detailing Jennifer Messer’s cushy City of Fishers $240,000 a year part-time job. Rokita is likely to attempt to make hay out of Messer living in Northern Virginia.
Assault ads against Rokita could include his shoddy treatment of staff, use of franking for political gain, taking Indian casino money, ducking two debates, or Braun’s most damning tactic of all, calling out Messer and Rokita for being “congressmen.” An Economist/YouGov Poll had congressional approval at 8 percent with 74 percent disapproving, and Quinnipiac had it at a lofty 12 percent approval with 81 percent disapproving. The Economist/YouGov Poll had the national right/wrong track at a torpid 35/56 percent. These are rabidly bad numbers for any incumbent working in “the swamp.”
So, Hoosier Republicans, you have a big decision to make. Time to keep your eyes and ears open.
— Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.