INDIANAPOLIS — An Indiana Senate candidate who carries a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump to campaign rallies, dons a "Make America Great Again" hat in a TV ad and ridicules an opponent for being a "Never Trumper" called the eventual president "vulgar, if not profane" in a little-noticed 2016 interview.
During the February 2016 interview with Indianapolis-based WXIN TV, Republican Rep. Todd Rokita used harsh words to explain why he supported Sen. Marco Rubio for president instead of Trump.
"When you see Marco contrasted with Donald Trump — I mean someone who is vulgar, if not profane," Rokita said. "At some point you have to be presidential. People expect that and you see that in Marco Rubio."
It's a stunning contrast to the rhetoric Rokita, a Munster native, has employed since launching his primary bid in August for a chance to challenge Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in November. Since then, Rokita — whose campaign slogan is "Defeat the Elite" — has blasted his opponents for not supporting Trump enough, while presenting himself as the one true embodiment of the president's populist appeal.
Take his most recent TV ad released Tuesday, which the Washington Post labeled as "the all-consuming tribalism of Trump's Republican Party, in one 30-second ad."
In the ad titled "MAGA" — short for Make America Great Again — Rokita attacks primary opponents, fellow Rep. Luke Messer and former state Rep. Mike Braun, as insufficiently supportive of the president.
Rokita labels Braun, who regularly voted in Democratic primaries until 2012, as a RINO — a derisive acronym standing for "Republican In Name Only."
But he saved his toughest criticism for Messer.
"Luke Messer? He plotted with the 'Never Trumpers' to steal the nomination from President Trump. You've got to be kidding me," Rokita says before donning a red "Make America Great Again hat. "I'm Todd Rokita and I'll proudly stand with our president and Mike Pence to Drain the Swamp."
In a statement Wednesday, spokesman Nathan Brand insisted Rokita was still "the only Republican who steadfastly supported Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton."
"This is why the 2016 Trump-Pence Indiana team has expressed support for Todd," which Brand contrasted with Messer, who made critical comments against Trump even after he had a lock on the Republican nomination.
Messer's campaign fired back with its own statement Wednesday, suggesting Rokita's Trump-based campaign amounted to political opportunism that doesn't always extend to voting with the president in Congress.
"Todd Rokita is a consummate politician and a classic Washington hypocrite," said campaign manager Chasen Bullock. "He is what he says he is against. The worst part is Congressman Rokita wears a Trump hat on TV, but votes against President Trump in Congress."
Rokita's stance since the February 2016 interview, which was given in the midst of the Republican Presidential primary, is yet another example of the dramatic shift in the party since Trump's election. Now, in Indiana's Republican Senate race, all three candidates are falling over each other to proclaim their admiration for the president.
Messer, whose criticisms were even more pointed, accused Trump of "race-baiting" while suggesting that he was a hard candidate for many GOP voters to swallow.
"Our party is united that we're not for Hillary Clinton. The question is can folks put on a Donald Trump tee shirt? And the reality is it's hard to do," Messer told CNN after Trump secured the nomination.
Rokita, meanwhile, hedged his bets, acknowledging during the WXIN interview that "even if (the nominee) is Donald Trump, I will be supporting Donald Trump."