U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita hugs Ivy Tech President Sue Ellspermann as U.S. Rep. Luke Messer during the portrait unveiling of Vice President Mike Pence last week. (HPI Photo by Mark Curry)
U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita hugs Ivy Tech President Sue Ellspermann as U.S. Rep. Luke Messer during the portrait unveiling of Vice President Mike Pence last week. (HPI Photo by Mark Curry)

WASHINGTON – Business leaders may be abandoning President Donald J. Trump in the wake of his reaction to last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Va., but the two leading candidates in the Indiana Republican Senate primary race are sticking with him.

While CEOs exited White House advisory councils after Trump on Tuesday reaffirmed his stance that there “was blame on both sides” of a demonstration by white nationalists and a counter protest that led to one death and several injuries, Reps. Luke Messer, 6th CD, and Todd Rokita, 4th CD, avoided contradicting Trump.

“Hate, bigotry and racism are un-American and unacceptable,” Messer said in an email statement. “I denounce these groups in the strongest terms. To me, much of the criticism surrounding the president was unfair. President Trump denounced the violence and racism displayed in Charlottesville, and I have denounced it, too.”

Like Trump, Rokita cast a wide net of blame. “Rep. Rokita believes Americans need to come together to reject all hate groups that encourage domestic terrorism and violence,” Tim Edson, a Rokita campaign spokesman, wrote in an email. “Whether it’s white supremacists and neo-Nazi thugs spewing hatred and committing violence against people because of race or religion like we saw in Charlottesville, or radical leftists calling for violence against law enforcement, none of it is acceptable.”

Messer and Rokita are locked in what is already a nasty battle for the right to take on Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in 2018. Both are trying to win over Trump supporters who likely will make the difference in the primary, which also has drawn state Rep. Mike Braun, Terry Henderson of Atlanta, Mark Hurt of Kokomo and Andrew Takami of New Albany.

Staying aligned with Trump could become increasingly difficult for all the candidates because of Trump’s unpredictability. Earlier this week, he attacked the person who heads the caucus the Republican candidates want to join, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Trump vented his frustration at the Senate’s failure to pass a bill to scuttle the Affordable Care Act.

“Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed repeal & replace for seven years couldn’t get it done,” Trump Tweeted. “Mitch, get back to work and put repeal & replace, tax reform and cuts and a great infrastructure bill on my desk for signing. You can do it!”

The Senate candidates are resisting taking sides between Trump and their possible future boss. “Luke’s not going to get into any kind of discussion on personalities,” said Messer campaign spokesman Jason Kneeland. In an email statement, Messer was careful to stay neutral on the Trump-McConnell tension, while placing blame on Donnelly and Senate Democrats.

“I share the president’s frustration with the results in the U.S. Senate. That’s part of the reason why I’m running for the job,” said Messer, the House Republican policy chairman. “Senate Democrats have decided to ‘foul on every play’ and make it difficult for the Trump agenda to succeed. On the most important votes, Joe Donnelly votes in lock step with his party. Both President Trump and Mitch McConnell are working toward common goals. Now, we have to deliver results and keep our promises to the American people, [which] includes repealing Obamacare. We cannot promise something for seven years, and then shrug and walk away when it gets tough. That’s simply not okay. Hoosier families are suffering under Obamacare.”

Rokita’s campaign stressed that McConnell delivered for Trump “under great political pressure” by holding open the Supreme Court seat that eventually was filled by Trump’s nominee, “constitutionalist” Neil Gorsuch. “Both Trump and McConnell are pushing to repeal Obamacare,” Edson wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, liberals like Joe Donnelly vote against the interests of Hoosier families and continue to defend Obamacare in lockstep with Nancy Pelosi.”

During the Senate health care debate, Donnelly said that the ACA worked well for many Hoosiers and that the Republican bill, crafted by McConnell, would end the Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0.

“I still believe that by working together we can improve our health care system and, at a minimum, Congress and the administration should do no harm to the millions of Americans’ whose health and economic well-being are at stake,” Donnelly said after the Senate failed to approve an ACA replacement bill on July 28. “We should do the hard and necessary work to gather the input of doctors, nurses, hospitals, and patients, and work in a bipartisan manner to make coverage more affordable and accessible for Hoosier and American families.”

By next year, Donnelly may have the easier task – running against most of what Trump does and says. The winner of the Senate GOP primary could find himself fighting Donnelly and Trump.

Schoeff is HPI's Washington correspondent.