INDIANAPOLIS — The three men vying for Indiana's Republican U.S. Senate nomination meet Monday for the final debate before Hoosiers decide May 8 which of them will challenge U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., in the November general election.
Northwest Indiana residents can watch the one-hour debate, organized by the nonpartisan Indiana Debate Commission, live at 6 p.m. Region time on Lakeshore Public Television.
This is the only debate where Hoosier voters get to ask questions directly to the three candidates: former state Rep. Mike Braun, R-Jasper; U.S. Rep. Luke Messer, R-Greensburg; and Munster-native U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Brownsburg.
It remains to be seen whether voter questions can compel the candidates to address specific policy issues, rather than talking up their shared affinity for President Donald Trump or attacking each other as lifelong politicians or worse, as they have in prior joint meetings.
There are, in fact, very few policy differences between Braun, Messer and Rokita.
They all favor further federal tax reductions, support constructing a border wall with Mexico, claim that arming teachers will halt school shootings, believe the U.S. should rescind the Iran nuclear deal and want foreign trade tariffs.
Messer is leading an effort to nominate Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize for the president's efforts to reconcile North and South Korea.
If elected, each candidate likely would seldom stray from the Republican Party line, as all three have been recognized for their consistently conservative voting records as elected officials.
Braun served three years in the Indiana House and a decade on his hometown school board. Messer also spent three years in the Indiana House and won election to Congress in 2012 where he's currently chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee.
Rokita began serving in the U.S. House in 2011 after eight years as Indiana's secretary of state that saw him implement the nation's first state law requiring voters provide identification to cast a ballot.
Those similarities in beliefs and background seem to be making it difficult for many Hoosier Republicans to decide which candidate to support.
The limited amount of public polling in the race suggests that as many as 30 percent to 45 percent of GOP voters remain undecided with barely a week until the primary.
A nasty turn
That likely explains why the three stalwart Republicans have turned to describing each other as "liberals," "liars" and "swamp monsters," among other brickbats, to distinguish themselves in increasingly nasty television, radio and internet ads.
Braun, who runs an auto parts distributing company, routinely touts his experience as a businessman compared to "career politicians" Messer and Rokita.
In one clever commerical, a blue-shirted Braun stands beside life-sized cardboard cutouts of his opponents, dressed in near-identical suits and red ties, and encourages voters to choose someone different.
"We need less career politicians and more outsiders who've actually done something in the real world," Braun says in another ad. "The work before us is too great to rely on the same career politicians that got us into this mess in the first place. That’s why I’m running."
Messer began his campaign as something of a happy warrior talking about the need for teamwork in Washington, D.C., and vowing to "shake up the Senate" in order to "save our country."
He initially ran testimonial ads featuring his mother and daughters. Though, in recent weeks, Messer has followed the Trump campaign playbook by dubbing Rokita "Lyin' Todd" for his numerous attacks on Messer's residency, income sources and ideology.
"Todd Rokita puts on a MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat, he runs around the state, but on the tough votes he's against President Trump," Messer said. "I support President Trump, and I have the record to prove it."
Rokita, meanwhile, has not backed down from his near-constant attacks on Messer or Braun. In fact, Rokita literally dons a pair of boxing gloves in a recent ad and slams punching bags with his opponents' faces on them because "real conservatives fight."
Such bombast has defined Rokita's campaign from its launch where he vowed to "defeat the elite." He's also condemned Braun and Messer for supporting tax policies at the Statehouse that were sought by Republican Govs. Mitch Daniels and Eric Holcomb.
"To beat Joe Donnelly in November, it'll take a conservative fighter willing to outwork the competition," Rokita said. "I'm running for the U.S. Senate to take the Hoosier values I see every day throughout the state and bring them to Washington."
The Republican primary winner will be in a prime position to defeat Donnelly, a Democrat who narrowly won his Senate seat in 2012 and must seek a second term in a state that Trump carried in 2016 by 19 percent.