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Howey Political Report: the Wildcard, Joker & the Ace

By Craig Dunn

KOKOMO – Playing cards may not be your favorite pastime, however you don’t need to know much about gambling to understand big stakes. This year’s U.S. Senate primary in Indiana is no doubt a high leverage game that will take smarts, resolve and of course millions of dollars, to win. So, the question for Hoosier Republicans is, “Who do we want playing our hand?” Luke Messer, Todd Rokita, and Mike Braun are the likely contenders to lead the Republican ticket this fall. I suggest we ask ourselves who is best positioned to beat Joe Donnelly.

A long view of political history tells us the first mid-term election of a newly elected president can be challenging for that president’s party. When you couple this trend with a hostile media focused on derailing the Trump-Pence agenda, the political terrain this fall could be difficult. Add to this environment an affable Joe Donnelly who is willing to take both sides of every issue and run a shameless campaign based on centrist rhetoric that ignores his liberal voting record, it becomes clear that Republicans will need a responsible, thoughtful, and tough candidate.

Let’s take a look at the candidates who are “all in” for 2018 and see who has the best chance at recapturing this crucial Senate seat for Indiana Republicans.

Let’s start with the wildcard. Mike Braun by all accounts seems to be a decent man with a successful business, but there are many more questions than answers surrounding his candidacy at this point. With a history of voting Democrat, and some less than attractive tax-hike votes in the legislature, Mike Braun will certainly not have the luxury of winning the nomination without some serious scrutiny. However, if he did, what would Braun’s general election campaign look like? The shortest and most honest answer is we don’t know. That’s why I believe his candidacy is a wildcard.

The question Hoosier Republicans will have to answer is whether we are comfortable with a candidate who has not built a statewide grassroots network, and until 2012, was still voting for Democrats. Furthermore, Mr. Braun may be a nice guy, but how will he handle the onslaught of negative media and nonstop press coverage in the “gotcha” age of journalism? We’ve seen a simple debate answer completely derail a Senate campaign and in my view this isn’t the time to pin our hopes on a wildcard. The eyes of the GOP will be on Mr. Braun as the GOP primary unfolds.

There is also a joker in this race. I say joker because I don’t know how much of what Congressman Rokita says is intended to be taken seriously. I have known Congressman Rokita for a long time, however I’m unfamiliar with the Todd Rokita I’ve seen on the campaign trail this last year. In his blind ambition to climb the political ladder, Rokita has simultaneously attacked other qualified candidates while bending the truth to hype his status as everyman’s conservative. Both tactics are unnecessary and unfortunate.

Todd Rokita has a record that should suffice in building a narrative to share with voters, but instead Rokita has chosen to re-create himself as an “outsider.” My guess is that Congressman Rokita’s campaign slogan of “defeat the elite” will ring hollow when Rokita’s life story and political past are brought to light. After all, Rokita attended some of the most elite schools in Indiana and is known to boast about owning private planes since he was a young man. Somebody with this life story may not want to act as though life has dealt him a raw hand. As the guys on ESPN would say, “C’mon, man!”

Rokita has dined at the public trough longer than all of his U.S. Senate primary opponents combined. The truth is Congressman Rokita didn’t have a problem seeking their favor over the last 20 years as he sought a number of political offices, including governor.

In the end, it is not that Rokita’s message is flawed, he is simply a flawed messenger who’s been a part of the political elite his entire life. If you doubt this, take a look at FEC reports. It isn’t ma and pa 10-dollar donations that are fueling the Rokita campaign. Maybe there is still time for Rokita to find his way, but if he stays the current course, the hypocrisy will be too much for Indiana voters. You simply can’t lift yourself up by tearing others down, you can only attempt to drag them down to your level.

Further, I became very concerned with the culture of fear that hung over the Rokita Congressional staff like a cloud of misery, as good staff people made walking on eggshells a daily ritual. That’s not how you treat good people.

Fortunately, there’s also an ace in the race. Luke Messer is emerging as the clear choice of Indiana Republicans to defeat Joe Donnelly. He has the background, tenacity and authenticity this race demands. Messer was raised by a single mom in rural Greensburg, and worked his way through college and law school. He’s built a career on leading meaningful policy change, first as a state legislator, then as a nationally respected advocate for school choice and now as a member of the leadership team in the House.

Messer is a thoughtful and strong conservative who shares the values of Indiana’s conservative base, while offering a knowledgeable and upbeat presentation to voters of every stripe. It’s why he’s garnering support from elected officials and grassroots conservatives alike. He’s also an effective communicator who can present a conservative message and handle the media, skills that cannot be overstated. A hostile media in this midterm election could go far in undermining an otherwise good candidate.

But maybe most importantly to defeating Joe Donnelly, Messer is a likable guy. When you first meet Luke, it’s likely you’ll hear about his kid’s basketball game before the policy issue of the day. Messer is a family man with a record of leadership for this state, and he’s not claiming to be anything different. Luke Messer is the ace in the hole that Hoosier Republicans can count on before they bet the family farm.

This U.S. Senate race is too important to Indiana and the nation to take a wild gamble on an untried candidate of dubious political heritage or a candidate who bends scripture and then quotes it to fit his needs. Now is not the time to place our money and support on unprepared or unreliable candidates.

Republicans must remember how Sen. Donnelly got this seat in the first place, and keep in mind the damage done in Alabama by a bad candidate just last month. I think it’s time for Hoosier Republicans to come together and get serious about winning this fall. In my estimation, we should be placing our bets on Luke Messer.

In full disclosure, I have given thoughtful consideration to all of the candidates in the Republican Senate primary and decided several months ago to support Luke Messer. It’s time to send a political chameleon like Joe Donnelly packing.

Dunn is the former Howard County Republican Party chairman.