Rokita, Messer not budging, still all in on Trump


By Dave Bangert

You didn’t have to look far or listen hard for Democratic strategists and political scientists pulling results from the off-year elections conducted recently and seeing — or wishing for? — a huge anti-Donald Trump wave brimming on the horizon.

Here’s just one example, from Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, who had a front row seat to Ralph Northam’s win in Virginia’s race for governor over Ed Gillespie, a Republican whose campaign took on a Trump-like edge.

“I would say that the top four reasons are Trump, Trump, Trump and Trumpism,” Sabato told USA TODAY. “What’s the difference? The difference is Democratic anger in Trump.”

So, will that have any effect in Indiana, where Republicans running to take on Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly have done all they can to wrap them as tightly as possible to all things Donald Trump?

“Indiana is not Virginia,” said Tim Edson, a strategist on Rep. Todd Rokita’s campaign.

Rokita — a Brownsburg Republican who represents Indiana’s 4th District, which includes Tippecanoe County – has been in a particularly biting campaign with Rep. Luke Messer, a Republican from Greensburg, over who can toe the Trump line the best. State Rep. Mike Braun, a Republican from Jasper who has been trying to make up ground with considerable infusions of his own cash, opened his campaign with a vow “to deliver Donald Trump reinforcements as he takes on the D.C. swamp.”

If any of them were having second thoughts about their all-in Trump allegiances, they weren’t showing it in the past week.

If anything, they were ramping things up.

Messer sent out campaign material steeped in the Trump agenda on immigration — “I’m working with President Trump to crack down on illegal immigration by building the wall and stopping sanctuary cities to keep Hoosiers safe” — and tax cuts, saying Donnelly and “the broken Senate blocked President’s Trump’s agenda.”

Rokita hailed Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to home state Indiana, saying he was “proud to be supporting President Trump” and his tax cut plan.

Rokita went the extra mile in a campaign email to repeat claims that Messer waffled on Trump ahead of the Republican National Convention in 2016. Rokita wove that message into a campaign ad the ended with: “If you like Donald Trump, you won’t like Luke Messer.” (Do the two former Wabash College classmates really dislike each other? Yes, it’s true.)

Even a dissection of the Virginia race played to some of the appeal of Trump, who took Indiana by 19 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Edson pointed out that Trump lost Virginia by 5 percentage points in 2016. And he said Virginia “is becoming more Democrat every election because it very much benefits from the big government largess and the status quo in Washington.” (Drain the swamp, anyone?)

Even if Trump’s support has eroded in the past year, Edson claimed, “if the presidential election had been Tuesday, Donald Trump would have won Indiana again by double digits.”

Trump’s stock in Indiana has dropped in his first year in office, based on the recent Old National Bank/Ball State University 2017 Hoosier Survey. Among the 600 adults polled, Trump’s approval rating was at 41 percent. That trailed Pence’s approval rating of 50 percent. Still, Republican support for Trump was at 77 percent in the same survey.

Both Messer and Rokita have mocked Donnelly’s claims that he’ll appeal to Hoosiers who elected him to the Senate in 2012 and elected Donald Trump in 2016.

“In 2018, Hoosiers will have to decide what vision they want for the future,” Edson said. “Donald Trump offers prosperity, traditional values and a strong America. That’s what Todd Rokita supports. (Former House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi offers San Francisco values, government dependency and American weakness. That’s Joe Donnelly’s team. The Senate race will present a very clear choice about two very different futures.”

Say what you will about results in Virginia and elsewhere. But if Democrats were hoping to get a referendum on the president in 2018, they’re going to get it.

Republicans who have staked campaigns on who can stand closest to the president have no plans to distance themselves one inch from Donald Trump.

Dave Bangert is a columnist for the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier.

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