The three Republican U.S. Senate candidates have spent the last six months building the foundations for their campaigns and preparing for this very moment. It is the final nine-week homestretch of what will likely be a donnybrook primary race for the right to challenge U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly.
What will be fascinating is that the pilings these candidate have attempted to establish can be compromised by a single Tweet or White House reality TV show by President Donald Trump, who is dominating the political landscape on a daily basis. Former Republican congressman Mark Souder observed, “The biggest thing is this: Nobody cares except for hardcore political types right now. It’s just stunning. Trump is sucking out all the oxygen. On my Facebook and LinkedIn I have politically skewed friends and participants from all over the state. Nothing on anything but Trump.”
So the Senate candidates are going to have to throw the proverbial red meat out to that very conservative primary voter to break through the Trumpian ether.
Last week, Jasper businessman Mike Braun used the deaths of Indianapolis Colts linebacker Edwin Jackson and Uber driver Jeff Monroe to stake a position on immigration. “Here illegally, Manuel Orrego-Savala was deported twice, and had multiple convictions and arrests,” Braun says looking into the camera. “Drunk, he hit and killed Jeffrey Monroe and Colts Linebacker Edwin Jackson. It was a senseless tragedy, and it never should have happened. Politicians in Washington have ignored this issue for far too long. We must build the wall, ban sanctuary cities, and put an end to chain migration. There are lives at stake.”
Monroe’s widow was incensed by the ad, but it is conspicuous, created headlines and will play well to some primary voters.
On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita launched his first cable/broadcast ad, with enough prime cuts to make the Ossian Smoked Meats store jealous. “Liberal elites disrespect our flag and the sacrifices of our soldiers,” Rokita says, peering at the viewer. “They riot in our streets, attack our police” and want “welfare dependency, amnesty and open borders, and it must stop. I’m pro-life, pro-gun and pro-Trump.”
The third candidate, U.S. Rep. Luke Messer, had yet to air a broadcast/cable TV ad, but will in the coming days.
The political quicksand is that Trump is like a weathervane. He pushed tax reforms and a budget that adds an estimated $1.5 trillion to the federal budget deficit, undermining long-time Messer and Rokita positions on national debt. Messer voted for the budget, Rokita against.
In the first Senate debate last week, Rokita noted that Messer said the budget funds the military, calling it a “false choice.” Messer retorted, “It’s the choice our commander-in-chief gave us. He could be no clearer.” Then he pivoted back to Rokita, who portrayed himself as the lone Trump supporter from the beginning of his campaign. “You can’t run around and say you support the president and then not support him,” Messer said.
Rokita’s line — “I’m pro-gun and pro-Trump” — comes in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school massacre that has prompted dozens of companies to pull affiliations with the National Rifle Association. Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart are now restricting some gun and magazine sales and raising age requirements.
The reaction in Indiana has been both fascinating and bizarre. Moms Demand Action rallies packed halls in Fishers and Indianapolis, and there was a well-attended rally in Fort Wayne. Dozens of parents attended a Columbus school board meeting to demand more school security, Wabash schools announced more resource officers, and Portage planned for “active shooter” workshops.
And there have been more than 30 arrests of students and parents making school threats in Loogootee, Evansville, Jeffersonville, Columbus, Kokomo, Sullivan, Tippecanoe Valley, South Vermillion, Gary, Griffith, Chesterton, Anderson and Indianapolis. No other mass atrocity has sparked these kinds of reactions here in Indiana.
On Wednesday, Trump spoke with a bipartisan group of senators in what Vox Media described as “madcap and unscripted.” Vice President Mike Pence began talking about possible steps to disarm obviously mentally ill people. Trump responded, "Take the guns first, go through due process second. We can't wait and play games and nothing gets done.” This reveals a president with little inkling of basic rights and legal procedure.
He stunned lawmakers, saying, “You’re scared of the NRA.”
Trump continued, “I like that word, comprehensive. They say it is a bad word. I like the word. I would rather have a comprehensive bill.” Trump then pushed Sens. Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin to add an assault weapons ban to their bill. Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein appeared absolutely giddy.
The NRA reacted by calling it another installment of Trump reality TV. But we’ve seen this act before, with Trump behaving in similar fashion on bipartisan immigration reform, only to undermine the process with tweets and more conflicting statements.
So when Rokita describes himself as “pro-gun and pro-Trump,” we have no idea what these two potentially conflicting stances will mean when the president tweets and contradicts. These are chameleon-like notions that can change in an instant.
We are watching the reality TV presidency. Coming to Indiana will be a reality TV Republican Senate primary.