Within days of GOP Rep. Steve Buyer announcing that he would not seek re-election, Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita declared his candidacy for the congressional seat in this largely rural, central-Indiana district. Rokita won a crowded May primary, which put him in a strong position to win the conservative-leaning district in the general election.
Rokita grew up in Munster, Ind., the oldest of three children. His father was a dentist who owned his own practice, and his mother was a dental hygienist. Rokita was president of his high school student body and won a full scholarship to Wabash College, an all-male liberal arts school. He majored in political science, focusing on political philosophy, and studied for a semester at the University of Essex in England. Rokita said in an interview that his semester in Europe reinforced his already conservative political beliefs. Fellow students told him about long lines and poor service in government-run hospitals, and he noticed the high cost of goods because of a value-added tax, a form of consumption tax collected in Europe. On an excursion to Amsterdam, he saw what he described as the dangers and social costs of legalized drugs. His experience abroad was “a good glimpse into what the future of America would and could be with liberalism on the march here,” Rokita said.
After earning his law degree at the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis, Rokita worked in private practice for several years. A licensed pilot, Rokita focused on aviation law, among other fields. While volunteering on local and state campaigns, he met then-Secretary of State Sue Anne Gilroy, who hired him as her general counsel and later made him deputy secretary of state. Rokita also worked for the George Bush presidential campaign in 2000, training workers in how to challenge ballots during the historic 2000 Florida recount.
In 2002, Gilroy was term-limited out of office, and Rokita ran for the Republican nomination to succeed her. In Indiana, convention delegates choose the nominees for all statewide offices other than governor. Rokita took a leave of absence from his job, bought a surplus police car, and drove across the state, meeting with delegates in their homes. He estimates that by the time of the convention, he had met 1,500 of the 2,000 delegates. He won the Republican nomination for secretary of state on the third ballot and went on to win the general election.
In office, he fulfilled a campaign pledge to get a bill through the Legislature requiring a photo ID at polling places to combat voter fraud. Critics of the 2005 law argued that it disenfranchised poor voters who are less likely to have driver’s licenses (and are more likely to vote Democratic). A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld it in 2008. Rokita was embroiled in another controversy with civil rights undercurrents. In a 2007 speech, he questioned why 90 percent of blacks vote for Democrats. “How can that be?” Rokita said, according to the Associated Press. “Ninety to ten. Who’s the master and who’s the slave in that relationship? How can that be healthy?” After African-American leaders condemned his remarks, Rokita apologized.
In 2009, he managed to infuriate members of both political parties in the state when he proposed making it a felony for lawmakers to draw legislative districts based on political data such as party registration and where incumbents live. He argued that the current process allows incumbents to draw districts in their own favor instead of trying to keep communities together, and he created a website to raise awareness of his campaign. “I don’t think it’s his business,” the Republican leader in the state Senate told the Indianapolis Star. “The secretary of state has overstepped his bounds.” Although Rokita has since backed off his call to prosecute lawmakers who violate the redistricting rules, he has continued to push for reform.
This year, Rokita considered challenging Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, but jumped into the congressional race instead when Buyer announced his retirement. His main primary opponent was state Sen. Brandt Hershman, Buyer’s district director. With high name-recognition and solid fund-raising, Rokita won 42 percent of the vote to Hershman’s 17 percent. There were 11 other candidates in the race, but none of them earned more than 10 percent of the vote.