After narrowly losing to longtime incumbent Rep. Dan Burton in the Republican primary in 2010 in the 5th District, Luke Messer rebounded with a victory in the newly rejiggered 6th District, which now includes his Shelbyville home. He was heavily favored to win the contest to replace Mike Pence, the prominent conservative Republican who left after six terms to run for governor.
Messer was born in Evansville, and the family moved to Greensburg when he was 4 years old. A sixth-generation Hoosier, Messer traces his Republican ideology and interest in politics to his family roots. Messer’s grandmother, Helen Rotzien, was a ward chairman and secretary of the Marion County Republican Central Committee in the 1960s. His “personal hero,” Messer said in an interview, is his mother, a 40-year employee of Delta Faucet who raised him as a single mother. He said she exemplifies hard-working values and taught him that “anyone can come from humble beginnings.” Messer attended Wabash College, paying his tuition by working as a waiter and telemarketer and graduating in 1991 with a major in speech.
Messer earned a law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1994, and went on to jobs on Capitol Hill with three members of Congress, including his 2010 opponent, Burton. In 2000, Messer ran for an open House seat against Pence and lost in the GOP primary. As the executive director of the Indiana Republican Party in 2004, he had a role in the successful gubernatorial campaign of Republican Mitch Daniels.
Messer was appointed to the Indiana House of Representatives to fill a vacancy after the death of the incumbent, and represented the majority of Shelby County and much of Bartholomew County. During his time in the Legislature, Messer’s signature issue was education. His legislation aimed at curbing high school drop-out rates received national attention after Shelbyville High School became a symbol of a national dropout crisis. As highlighted in a Time magazine cover story and a special on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Messer’s 2005 bill made Indiana raise its minimum dropout age from 16 to 18. Since the legislation was implemented, Shelbyville High School’s graduation rate has increased from 75 percent to 90 percent.
Messer was also inspired to write a children’s book called Hoosier Heart. The book, illustrated by his wife, Jennifer, follows the journey of Emma and Ava (named after his daughters) and their friend, Ben, as they discover what it means to be a Hoosier.
When he announced his candidacy for the U.S. House seat in May 2011, Messer publicly aligned himself with the policies of Pence. His top competitor in the packed GOP field was Columbus real-estate investor Travis Hankins. Messer vastly outraised him, but Hankins ran a competitive grassroots campaign, personally calling more than 19,000 voters and spending the majority of his funds on yard signs to cover the 19-county congressional district. Messer remained the choice of the GOP establishment and benefited from a timely endorsement from the popular Daniels days before the primary. Hankins finished second to Messer.
In the general election, Messer defeated Democrat Bradley Bookout, a former Delaware County Council member. Messer’s finances and the partisan layout of the newly redrawn 6th District practically ensured him a victory. The 6th District, which runs from Muncie to the Ohio River, has become even more heavily Republican since redistricting in 2011. Messer says that the district consists of “courthouse towns, agriculture, and manufacturing communities.”
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