Republican Senate candidates Todd Rokita (top), Luke Messer and Mike Braun are beginning to take definition in the prism of the recent tax reforms with the winner taking on U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly. (HPI Photos by Mark Curry)
Republican Senate candidates Todd Rokita (top), Luke Messer and Mike Braun are beginning to take definition in the prism of the recent tax reforms with the winner taking on U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly. (HPI Photos by Mark Curry)
FORT WAYNE – The candidates for the hotly contested Indiana United States Senate seat were certified just hours after the budget passed Congress and was signed into law by the president. The vote clearly outlined the battle lines which had already been drawn.
 
It is increasingly difficult to see how the Republicans will maintain even their razor-thin margin of 51-49 in the Senate without recapturing the Indiana seat. This is astounding, and depressing, given that 25 senators who caucus as Democrats and only eight Republicans are among the third of the Senate up for election in this cycle. This was the cycle to gain ground, because the next two will be playing defense.
  
This is also the vice president’s home state and a state that went overwhelmingly for President Trump in 2016. To outside observers, this ads to the perception that if the Republicans can’t win here, where are they safe?  Indiana is the most conservative state east of the Mississippi River and in the North. But anyone who spends more than time at an airport here knows our politics is far more complicated. Bernie Sanders’ narrow win over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary showed that even female pride could not overcome left-wing and anti-Washington establishment passion within the Indiana Democrat Party.  However, given the ineptness of the Indiana Democrats to actually compete in much of Indiana, they more readily unite to back anybody who seems even somewhat electable.
 
I am suggesting that if Sen. Joe Donnelly were to lose as did the legendary Evan Bayh, that the growing leftist branch of the Democrat Party will say, ‘What is the point of compromise if we are going to lose anyway?”  Donnelly has repeatedly split with Bernie Sanders, whom Indiana Democrats supported, including on abortion and this budget vote. Donnelly also made it crystal clear that he viewed avoidance of a government shutdown trumped fixing the so-called “Dreamer” issue.
 
Because Donnelly repeatedly stressed the importance of compromise and avoiding a shutdown, he polished his moderate credentials in front of the entire nation. The fact that he was able to do so and avoid getting blasted by Indiana Democrats shows that the left flank is holding their tongues for now. They will sell their soul for a win. A less ideological view, suggests that they instinctively know that Donnelly isn’t the leader of their party, Schumer and Pelosi are. With a Democrat majority, the moderates won’t be in charge of policy.
 
We Republicans, however, prefer to fight among ourselves. I remember as a youth in Indiana politics 50 years ago being somewhat surprised when a Republican leader told me that while defeating Democrats was enjoyable, there was nothing like a good old primary brawl. I think it was the legendary Seth Denbo who told me that, but if it wasn’t, it certainly represented his view.  He’s a good and deserving place to centralize such stories.
 
The three Republican candidates in this Senate race are yet another example of our rowdy factions. Historically, there were two basic divisions, going back to the post-World War II days. The more conservative faction was primarily located from central Indiana south, versus the more urban, northern branch. When I aligned with the more conservative faction, legendary Fort Wayne boss Orvas Beers blasted me for siding with the “south of 40” crowd.
 
Issues caused shifting from time to time, and 40 north overpowered 40 south in population. Dan Quayle was a northerner, but through his Pulliam connections and father was an active member of the conservative faction. By the time Dan Coats became a senator, the more conservative faction had mostly absorbed the newly powerful social conservative movement.
 
Nothing better illustrates the conservative tilt of this state than the fact that the Keith Bulen-led faction, which backed Dick Lugar in Indianapolis and included the kid Mitch Daniels, was viewed as the liberal faction. They were hardly liberals, though on some issues they compromised more than conservatives would have liked. Emphasis on social issues became a new dividing line.
 
Generally, the two major candidates in Republican primary would have a base in one of those two factions, and whoever could gain enough crossovers would win. The statewide victories of Quayle and Coats would be examples of the conservative flank winning; Daniels gained the support of enough of the social conservative leaders for a sound triumph over Eric Miller. Lugar did not receive such support during his final losing primary battle with Richard Mourdock, for a variety of reasons.
 
The 1998 Senate primary was a rare time when three candidates faced off with strong support. Paul Helmke of Fort Wayne, whose father had been one of the political leaders that built the more powerful northern urban coalition, won the primary with 35.1% of the vote. John Price of Carmel led the traditional southern conservative wing with the newly powerful social conservatives providing ground troops. Price finished second with 33.7% of the vote.
 
The third-place finisher had actually been the favorite to prevail, Peter Rusthoven. He had traditional establishment support. Brian Howey described it this way in April of 1998: “Rusthoven is a victim of the Republican establishment that urged him to get into the race. He has the backing of some of the top names in GOP politics – like Rex Early and Mitch Daniels … He put a campaign committee together that reads like the who’s who of Republican politics.” Rusthoven finished third, with 31.2%, in spite of having people from the economic faction of both the old north and south conservative wings.

Geography played a big role, with Helmke rolling up huge margins in northern Indiana where he was finishing his third term as mayor of Fort Wayne. He ran strong enough elsewhere to prevail in spite of being considerably more liberal than the other candidates.
 
History does not repeat itself but often it rhymes. One evolution of the Indiana GOP is this: In 2018 there is not a candidate with particularly dominant ties to social conservatives like Price and Mourdock had. But all three – Congressman Todd Rokita, Congressman Luke Messer and former state representative Mike Braun – campaign as pro-life. Rokita and Messer have basically perfect pro-life voting records, so Right-to-Life supports both of them. The entire GOP has moved right, but not as far right.
 
There are some pronounced geographic differences, and the recent financial statements reflect that. Rokita and Messer both have pulled contributions from around the state, showing they have strong support for being the nominee. But Rokita’s money comes disproportionately from Northwest Indiana and from his congressional district. Messer’s comes from within his district but also showed more support not only from Hamilton and Marion counties, but some important support from Allen, Elkhart and Kosciusko counties in northeast Indiana.
 
Braun has demonstrated the power of a newer force in Indiana politics: Personal wealth invested in extraordinary amounts. Congressman Trey Hollingsworth, who represents southeast Indiana, demonstrated that enough money can overcome endorsements, long-term involvement and name recognition.  He used his money to go directly to voters about issues. Name ID can be purchased.
 
The budget vote in Washington has re-set all the dividing lines of this Republican primary. Messer is the conservative insider, with the endorsements. While he’s raising plenty of money, it has been more difficult than one would expect for the “establishment” candidate.  If he’s really the “establishment,” where’s the financial dominance? What is more accurate, is that some of his key supporters are the ultimate establishment figures in Republican politics, though many are not.
 
Messer, as the elected leader of the Republican Conference, presumably was included in at least some if not most of the leadership meetings decided the House would support the Senate-passed budget. Whether or not he personally agreed with the conclusion, as conference chairman (and who prominently sat next to Whip Steve Scalise at the State of the Union Address) he also would have been expected to help round up enough Republicans to pass the bill.
 
Messer likely agreed with two positions that I also happen to agree with. 1) If the government had stayed shut down, and it was the undisputedly the fault of the House Republicans, they might as well have begun turning over everything to the Democrats and hardly bother with an election. Most people believed that Congress looked stupid, and like a bunch of children engaged in food fights. 2) You have to pass a budget, and a debt limit, or you risk tanking the economy. Sometimes decisions are difficult. You can’t pee your pants every time a tough decision looms that makes people upset. This is a democratic Republic, not a pure democracy for a reason. Constitutionally it requires compromise.
 
But politically, for a Republican primary, this issue has a lot more ramifications than purely making the necessary governing decision. Rokita voted “no,” which draws a sharp contrast to Messer. Braun is in the enviable position of getting to stand outside and criticize. If it shut down, he would have said Congress needed a businessman who could get things done, not these political children. Now that it passed, Braun can claim that it spends too much, compromised on too many issues, and didn’t resolve the immigration issue either. Being a critic is so much easier than governing. It is hypothetical, and you can promise to do things that cannot be done.
 
Politically Rokita’s position offers a contrast to Messer’s, who voted the same way as Donnelly. Messer will position as the responsible leader who can advance a conservative agenda, not just talk. Rokita voted with Pelosi and Sanders/Warren but that is difficult to sort out. He can assail Messer for spending, for compromising on Planned Parenthood, for voting to extend the debt limit and many other horrific things. Messer can respond that it was necessary to not have a yet another government shutdown (but that threat is past for now) and that Republicans didn’t have 60 votes in the Senate for the House bill, or even 50 (but that is inside baseball and the response of hard-right conservatives is that if the Republicans stood on principle, we’d win 60 seats). Rokita looks like the experienced conservative insider who stands on principle, arguing that he just needs more allies in the Senate.
 
But here the Braun drain comes into play for Rokita. If Braun continues to spend as he has done so far, and especially if the congressmen don’t spend some money soon and define him differently, he is the businessman outsider who will claim that Rokita is just another politician like Messer. Both congressmen should be tossed. To beat Donnelly, Braun claims, Republicans need a candidate who can run as a real contrast to Washington.
 
This scenario has given Republicans three clear choices, who have roughly equal amounts of cash in the bank and clearly different strategies. This could be a close three-way race like in 1998. It will likely come down to who makes mistakes, the ups and downs of the president’s tweets over the remaining months until the vote, and potentially how well small sub-components of the strategy of each is executed (e.g. appeals to social conservatives, who does well in southwest Indiana, identification with other candidates in a few other closely contested primaries).
 
The budget votes and the finance reports clearly set up an exciting primary that will also illustrate many of the dividing lines of the national Republican Party. 

Souder is a former Republican congressman.