Dueling Congressmen

By Jim Ellis

July 24, 2017 — Next year’s Indiana Senate race is expected to be one of the nation’s top wire-to-wire campaigns. Even the Republican primary, which will only produce a challenger nominee, is beginning in toss-up fashion.

A new OnMessage consulting firm poll (July 10-12; 400 likely Indiana GOP primary voters) finds a pair of Republican congressmen, unannounced for the Senate but both headed for the statewide race, already in a dead heat contest. According to the data, Reps. Todd Rokita (R-Brownsburg/Lafayette) and Luke Messer (R-Greensburg/Muncie) are tied at 23 percent in the new GOP primary preference poll. The eventual winner will challenge Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, who will be seeking his first re-election.

Attorney General Curtis Hill (R) and state Rep. Mike Braun (R-Jasper) are also thought to be considering their own Senate candidacies. They polled just four and two percent, respectively, in the OnMessage poll, however.

The two GOP House members are also virtually tied in the resource game. Both have been raising money at a strong clip: Rokita bringing in just over $1.3 million for the first half of 2017 and showing $2.35 million cash-on-hand, while Messer has attracted just under $1.3 million and possesses $2.027 million. For his part, Sen. Donnelly has brought in $5.47 million for the year and has $3.7 million in his campaign account.

With the strong Republican performance in the Hoosier State last November, Sen. Donnelly shot to the top of the 2018 Democratic vulnerability list. President Trump carried Vice President Mike Pence’s home state in a 57-38 percent landslide margin, while then-Rep. Todd Young (R-Bloomington) defeated former Sen. Evan Bayh (D) in a 52-42 percent statewide spread to succeed retiring Sen. Dan Coats (R). All of the House Republican incumbents and Rep. Young’s open seat remained in the GOP column with the respective winner boasting victory totals between 14 and 47 percentage points.

With polling showing Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) already trailing several potential Republican opponents, it is arguable that she is now the top GOP target but the Indiana race will remain a top tier campaign from now until next November. The OnMessage poll did not test the general election, so no relevant data is available pairing either Rokita or Messer with Sen. Donnelly.

The two Republicans are also close in terms of name identification and personal favorability ratings, at least within this OnMessage sampling group. Rep. Rokita has a 31:7 percent favorable to unfavorable ratio, while Messer’s rating is 22:5 percent.

Rep. Rokita was elected to the House in 2010, after serving two terms as Indiana’s Secretary of State. He ran unsuccessfully for governor last year when the internal Republican Party leadership was forced to replace then-Gov. Mike Pence after he was chosen post-primary as presidential nominee Donald Trump’s running mate. The Indiana committee installed appointed Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb as the gubernatorial nominee, and he scored a 51-45 percent victory in the November general election.

Rep. Messer was elected to the House in 2012, replacing Pence when the latter was elected governor. Ironically, Messer had lost to Pence in the 2000 congressional primary. The current congressman served three years in the Indiana House of Representatives and as a congressional aide, all before joining a national legal and public affairs firm. He was one of six Republicans to challenge then-Rep. Dan Burton in the 2010 GOP primary in the adjoining 5th District, placing second and losing by 2,265 votes.

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