Political pundits remain split on how Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly won his seat in the last election cycle. Some say it’s because Republicans weren’t convinced he was a Democrat while Democrats were at least sure he wasn’t a Republican. Others say Donnelly didn’t win so much as his Republican opponent, Richard Mourdock, lost. Both arguments have merit, but the latter is closer to the truth.
Six years later, the Republican challengers to Donnelly’s seat are trying not to repeat the mistakes of 2012. With three serious candidates currently vying for a primary win, however, the infighting and pettiness among the campaigns may do more for Donnelly’s win come November than anything he could do for himself.
The primary has already earned national attention for its pettiness and incivility. Not because the substance of the attacks between candidates has been unusual. For the most part, it’s been standard accusations of hypocrisy, corruption and Beltway elitism. What’s been different is the sheer quantity and hysterical nature of such attacks — especially from Rokita and his campaign.
The infighting began before any of the candidates officially announced they were running and was, at first, relatively innocuous.
Late last spring, an AP report uncovered that Messer’s wife, Jennifer Messer, was making $20,000 a month from the city of Fishers for contracted, part-time legal services, despite Fishers already having a legal staff and the Messer family not living in Indiana but in a wealthy suburb of D.C.
Rokita’s campaign circulated the story and understandably so. Payback arrived a week later, however, when Politico reported Rokita had reimbursed himself more than $100,000 from campaign donations for his private plane by funneling money through an LLC, of which he was a co-owner. In a fundraising email, Rokita implied Messer was behind the story to distract from his own improprieties. In response, a Messer official called Rokita “unhinged” — an insult Rokita would later throw at Messer, in verbatim.
Next, the Rokita campaign was accused of editing Messer’s Wikipedia page — emphasizing his lobbying career and the fact that, unlike Rokita, Messer doesn’t reside in Indiana. Most recently, Messer was caught paying college students’ hotel and travel costs so they could attend the Republican Party’s annual Congress of Counties conference and stuff the ballot in his favor.
The shenanigans reached a new low two weeks ago when Mike Braun and Messer showed up at the Statehouse to file their official paperwork as U.S. congressional candidates. Rokita surrogates followed them around the building wearing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama masks and holding signs that read “Thanks for the Support, Mike” and “Good Luck Tax Hike Mike” to remind the press that Braun had previously voted as a democrat. Another person following Messer was dressed as a milk carton with “Missing” written on it just above a picture of a flustered-looking Messer.
That same day Rokita’s campaign released a snarky statement “welcom[ing] Mike Braun to the Republican Party and Luke Messer back to the state he claims to still live in.” Adding that Messer was “like Evan Bayh, but without the well-known name.”
Both Rokita and Messer have campaigned as the “Trump candidate,” though neither endorsed Trump in the Republican presidential primary. For Messer, this has meant belaboring conservative pseudo-grievances about national anthem etiquette in the NFL. For Rokita, it has meant embodying the Trump persona: arrogant, caddish, and gimmicky.
Braun, the founder and CEO of Meyer Distributing, is a latecomer to the primary. He’s portraying himself as the above-the-fray candidate similar to what Ohio Gov. John Kasich did in the last Republican presidential primary. His strategy relies on capturing Republican voters weary of the extremism.
“This primary is going to be nasty,” Chicks on the Right producer and WIBC pundit Rob Kendall told me. “From a media perspective it’s going to be wildly entertaining, but I’m not sure it’s going to be good for the Republican Party coalescing.”
It’s fair to instinctively cringe whenever the media scolds candidates for using improper political table manners. More often than not it’s just lazy journalism and a cheap way of reinforcing the status quo. The problem with this primary isn’t the cattiness itself though, but the fact that (a) it’s clearly all for show and (b) when it isn’t, it still has no basis in political disagreements.
Rokita especially will do or say anything that promises votes; and he obviously believes his theatrics and maudlin emails will do just that. But Trumpism as an electoral strategy depends too much on Trump’s personal wealth and celebrity to be effective for other Republican candidates. And Trumpism as an ideology doesn’t exist except as a grand bargain between white rage and upper-class looting. Republican candidates, therefore, who tether themselves to the president have nothing to offer the public except sentimentality and sensationalism: politics as opium rather than antidote.