I want to preface this piece by thanking Todd Rokita’s campaign team; I wasn’t sure where to watch this debate, but they quickly replied to my email with the link, so this installment of my 2018 Indiana Senate race series goes out to the Rokita staffer who made this article possible.
Hosted by Americans for Prosperity, the first GOP debate in the Indiana Senate race was held on February 20th and streamed live on Facebook. The participants were the three main contenders on the Republican side—Todd Rokita, Luke Messer, and Mike Braun. This debate offered a crucial first major public exposure for the candidates, which I was able to somewhat track through my interactions in the livestream chat.
One of the first noticeable traits of the candidates was what they wore: Messer and Rokita sported suits, while Braun clearly went for the political outsider look by ditching the tie and jacket and rolling up his sleeves.
Right off the bat, Rokita went in guns blazing with some quick zingers aimed at his opponents, which made for the occasional laugh. As I predicted, Braun was a little standoffish, allowing Messer and Rokita to duke it out amongst themselves. Despite making some good attacks, Rokita kept his composure and didn’t overdo it, which was my main concern based on how belligerent this debate was predicted to be by pundits across Indiana.
Since the debate was hosted by Americans for Prosperity, which deals only with economic issues, the questions were all geared toward fiscal matters. Immigration wasn’t brought up at all aside from Rokita’s brief mention of building a border wall in his opening statement. However, some other issues important to our movement were brought up, which I will get into shortly.
The most significant observation from this debate was that no one counter-signaled Trump. All three candidates stuck by the President the entire time, with Rokita displaying the strongest support for Trump. Rokita mentioned during the debate that he has been endorsed by Trump’s 2016 Indiana field team. Throughout the debate, Rokita mirrored all of Trump’s biggest talking points: building the wall, putting America first, and even fair trade.
That’s right—Rokita broke from conservative dogma and came out in support of tariffs and even questioned the value of NAFTA. When asked the same question about trade, Messer and Braun both clung to the conventional Republican free trade stance. This is huge because it demonstrates Rokita’s commitment to Trumpism and proves that he is ideologically on point with the President in a way that many Republicans are not.
While Rokita supported tariffs, that’s not to say he isn’t a fiscal conservative. When asked what two spending cuts he would make given the chance, he responded by saying he would eliminate the entire Department of Education and Public Broadcasting Network. With Rokita we get the best of both worlds—America first when it comes to trade and a deficit hawk when it comes to wasteful spending. It’s also worth noting that when Messer was asked what two spending cuts he would make, he had arguably his worst moment in the entire debate.
There isn’t much more to say content-wise about this debate. Since it was focused on economic issues, no one really strayed beyond the standard Republican talking points other than Rokita with trade. For the most part, all three candidates support similar fiscally conservative solutions to the issues that were brought up, so not much stands out as being noteworthy. The only other thing that stands out to me is Braun’s continued referencing of Rand Paul in his questions, a few times deferring his own stances to those of Paul.
Most of the debate time was given to Messer and Rokita, with Braun receiving noticeably less time than the other two. Even people in the livestream chat were noticing this and commenting on it.
Which brings me to the livestream chat. I interacted with Indiana voters in the chat throughout the entire debate and watched closely to see what they had to say in order to gauge public opinion on the candidates. For as much as the primary looks like a toss-up statistically speaking, it qualitatively shares the same uncertainty. Messer or Braun might have had more support in the comments, but not by much since Rokita had a volume of fans watching as well.
An interesting point I noticed is that almost no one who supported Rokita also supported Braun. For example, many people said their first two choices were either Messer and Rokita or Braun and Messer. Almost no one said their top two choices were Rokita and Braun. There also seemed to be a consensus among viewers that Donnelly needs to go and that they will vote for whoever wins the primary, although a decent number of people were unsure how Braun would fare against Donnelly.
As entertaining as this debate was, there is still a lot of time before the May 5th primary, and anything could happen between now and then. I’m pulling for Rokita to win, but this race is still as much of a toss-up as it has ever been, with three solid candidates facing off against each other for the opportunity to take on Donnelly this November.