The Senate Challenger Running the Most Aggressive Campaign

Rep. Todd Rokita isn’t pulling any punches in the GOP primary to take on Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana
AP Photo/Darron Cummings
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
Feb. 22, 2018, 8 p.m.

INDIANAPOLIS—It took less than a minute.

Just seven sentences into his opening statement at a GOP Senate debate here this week, Rep. Todd Rokita ripped his two rivals, Mike Braun and Rep. Luke Messer, standing on stage to his left.

“Mike, welcome to the Republican Party. Luke, welcome back to Indiana,” Rokita said, referencing Braun’s past voting record in Democratic primaries and Messer’s residency issues.

As Rokita battles for the right to take on Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, the four-term congressman is running arguably the most aggressive campaign of any Senate challenger in a battleground state.

Rokita has mocked Braun using Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama impersonators. His campaign has called Messer “unhinged” and a “ticking time bomb.” And he has repeatedly railed against the GOP establishment with his “defeat the elite” slogan.

Rokita’s signature sniping, at a time when all three competitors are relatively unknown statewide, is aimed at defining Messer and Braun before they can do so themselves. It is a style, Indiana Republicans say, that comes with both promise and pitfalls.

While Rokita allies believe his hard-charging strategy fits a restless electorate’s mood under President Trump, other Republicans are raising concerns that his approach is hindering his electability.

“Some people see it as a detriment, when politics is about addition rather than subtraction,” said one Indiana Republican strategist who is unaffiliated in the race. “And it’s usually hard to add when you turn people off.”

With Indiana scheduled as the first major Senate primary, along with West Virginia, for May 8, Rokita’s unabashed tactics could offer a window into the kind of politics that GOP voters will crave—or reject—in coming months.

For his part, Rokita insists he’s “a nice guy” but makes no apologies about his method.

“I am known for my transparency,” Rokita said in a 20-minute phone interview from an Indianapolis diner. “I am known for my directness. That’s why a lot in the establishment don’t like me, because I don’t tell people what they want to hear.”

Rokita said his attacks—on issues ranging from Messer’s criticisms of Trump in 2016 to Braun’s prior votes in Democratic primaries—are based on genuine policy differences. And he maintained that Republicans will need a high-energy candidate who is in touch with the base to take down Donnelly.

“If these issues don’t come out now, Donnelly will bring them up,” he said.

Rokita’s style was in full visual form Tuesday outside of the debate, hosted by the Indiana chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

Along Indianapolis’s downtown Monument Circle, one Rokita backer was dressed as a milk carton adorned with a photo of Messer, whose family lives in Virginia so he can be close to them while serving on Capitol Hill. Two more Rokita supporters donned Obama and Clinton masks as a way of taunting Braun. And about an hour before the event started, Rokita unveiled a new website that labels Braun as a tax-hiker.

The congressman’s full-throttle campaigning traces back to his first bid in 2002, when Rokita, then 32, was elected as secretary of state. In that race, he drove a surplus police car to all 92 counties in the state, meeting around the clock with nominee-deciding delegates at Lincoln Day dinners and in living rooms.

“He just developed the mind-set that he was not going to be outworked,” said GOP state Sen. Mike Delph, a Rokita supporter who ran against him in that race. “There’s no question about it that Todd is one of the more aggressive, relentless campaigners at any level of our government.”

Rokita won the Republican nomination in the third round of voting and later the general election. He visited all 92 counties again every year as secretary of state.

At the end of 2017, Rokita bought another surplus police car, and he has logged 13,000 miles on it since. While Republicans generally agree that Rokita is campaigning tirelessly, his detractors describe his persona in harsher terms.

They say that the congressman can be self-serving and brash, a reputation that took on added weight last year when a leaked memo portrayed him as a demanding boss. And some Republicans have scoffed at Rokita’s plans to engage in “smash-mouth” politics, as he promised last month during an address at the Indiana GOP’s Congress of Counties.

To be sure, Rokita has attracted his share of in-state enemies over his time in public office.

Perhaps most famously, he angered both parties in 2009 when he proposed making it illegal for lawmakers to consider politics when creating legislative boundaries. The legislature drew him out of his district as payback two years later, when Rokita was serving in his first congressional term. (He later moved.)

Now, as he peppers Braun and Messer with criticism in the Senate race, his two rivals—for the most part—are striking a softer tone.

Last year, Messer accused Rokita of attacking his wife's legal career and of spreading lies about his family in a highly public and personal spat. But Messer recently has trained most of his fire at Donnelly and his record in the Senate.

At the debate, the first of the primary, Messer said several times that he was “laser-focused” on the senator, an implicit rebuke of the intraparty squabbling Rokita has promoted.

“The only way Democrats can win in this state is when Republicans are divided and throw stones at each other,” Messer said at one point. The congressman’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview.

While Braun has not shied away from hitting his rivals, often criticizing their Washington ties, he characterized Rokita’s style as unusually bombastic and even increasingly sensational.

“It looks disingenuous when somebody is trying to act like Donald Trump when they’re a career politician,” Braun said in an interview at a kosher-style delicatessen shortly before the three candidates met on stage.

Rokita, he suggested, “clearly will do or say anything to get his point across.”

As the primary barrels on, Republicans predict the barbs will continue to fly in a race they rank as one of their ripest targets. And Rokita, they forecast, will primarily drive the primary’s caustic tone.

If Rokita advances to the general election, his approach may offer an even sharper contrast against the mild-mannered and affable Donnelly. The congressman is already reveling in the possibility of that fight.

“Wait till I get to Joe Donnelly,” Rokita said, laughing. “I’m going easy on these guys. There’s a lot more that could come.”

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