Trump Loyalty Contest Takes Hold in Indiana Senate Primary

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This article first appered in Roll Call.

It’s not just primary challengers to sitting GOP senators who are feeling emboldened by the defeat of Alabama Sen. Luther Strange this week.

Indiana Rep. Todd Rokita took heart that the anti-establishment energy that propelled President Donald Trump to victory last fall is still in force,  with his campaign predicting that same movement will help him defeat fellow Hoosier Rep. Luke Messer in next year’s Senate primary.

“Hoosier Republicans are not going to let Republican elites pick their nominee,” Rokita general consultant Tim Edson wrote in a campaign memo Wednesday afternoon.

On Thursday, the campaign backed one of their web videos with a statewide digital buy. The message? “Hoosiers who like Donald Trump won’t like Luke Messer.”

The video resembles early attacks the Senate Leadership Fund ran against Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks in the state’s primary, calling into question Messer’s support for the president. 

Edson suggested Indiana’s GOP primary, which takes place in May, will be “a bellwether for the nation.” The memo went on to detail a by-now-familiar list of hits on Messer, including his being a member of leadership and moving his family to a Washington, D.C., suburb.

The sniping between the two Wabash College alumni, and the early placement of opposition research by both campaigns, has already given way to one of the nastiest GOP primaries so far this cycle.

But for a few hours Wednesday, Rokita — the self-described “defeat the elite” candidate — had the halls of Congress to himself.

His main primary opponent was in Indiana, where Trump was giving his speech about tax reform. Messer didn’t get a ride on Air Force One like Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly. But he did get a shoutout from the president, who called him “Mike.”

Rokita didn’t go to Indiana because he didn’t want to miss votes for a speech that could be watched on the internet, a source close to the congressman said.

“I’m sort of the one that the establishment keeps at arm’s length,” Rokita said proudly, hustling through the Capitol Visitor Center after the day’s last votes.

“So certainly the environment in Indiana is very similar to the environment that’s been in Alabama,” Rokita said. “So we’re just going to run our race. The voters know me, and they like me,” Rokita said, pointing out that he’d won statewide twice before as secretary of state. 

Democrats seized on the Rokita campaign’s memo as evidence that Rokita would “follow the lead of extremist Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.” Edson’s memo makes little mention of Moore himself, other than the “anti-elite message” that carried him and Trump to power.

Rokita wouldn’t comment Wednesday on how or whether he would identify with Moore and his message.

“That’s all I have to say,” Rokita said when asked about Moore. “I don’t know either of those gentlemen, so I can’t really comment on it. I just know Indiana.”

Messer hasn’t commented on the results of the Alabama race or the Rokita team's memo.

“Luke Messer voted for President Trump in the Indiana Primary and has supported him since,” Messer campaign manager Chasen Bullock said in a statement Thursday.

“Congressman Rokita is throwing a tantrum after he wasn't able to join the President in Indiana. While he plays politics, Luke is working with the President and Vice President to pass tax relief,” Bullock added.

A Thursday fundraising email from Messer finance chairman Greg Pence adopted a similar pro-Trump tone, trying to defend the president and his supporters. “Hoosier Luke Messer is running on that America First platform,” Pence wrote.

The Trump loyalty contest emerged as a dominant theme in this primary well before Alabama. Greg Pence, the vice president’s brother, is often the public face of Messer’s campaign. His team is hoping to turn that connection into support (or the perception of support) from the administration.

Rokita has the backing of the Trump campaign’s Indiana state chairman and vice chairman, who wrote a strongly worded memo to Hoosier Trump supporters before Rokita even entered the race. 

“We want to make sure you know that the one potential candidate to stand with President Trump unapologetically is Todd Rokita,” they wrote.

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