This “trend” bubbled up in the homestretch leading into the May 3 Indiana primary in several media quarters: A slate of “Liberty Defense” candidates was poised to pull the Republican House and Senate super majorities even further to the right.
Liberty Defense, based in Bluffton, was formed to confront Gov. Eric Holcomb’s pandemic mandates and to preserve “your freedoms and traditional family values. Our firm conservative stance is held tight to a no-compromise view on the issues of the sanctity of life, the 2nd Amendment and religious freedom.”
But there was no anti-incumbency trend in the May 3 primary. Five General Assembly incumbents lost, but three (State Reps. Curt Nisly, Jeff Ellington and State Sen. Kevin Boehnlein) fell victim to other incumbent legislators after they were drawn into the same districts with the new map.
With the defeat of Reps. John Jacob and Nisly, who were championed by Liberty Defense, two major headaches of Speaker Todd Huston are now gone.
As for the challenges by the Liberty Defense organization in 25 House races, only four on its list won and three of them – State Rep. Bruce Borders, State Sen. Gary Byrne and Wabash County Councilman Lorissa Sweet – had already won multiple elections. Of these 21 Liberty Defense races where endorsed candidates lost, none were close to matching Howey Politics Indiana’s 7% threshold that would suggest a potential breakthrough in the 2024 cycle.
Here’s how the Liberty Defense races ended:
HD7: Sarina Williams lost to Rep. Jack Teshka, 48.8% to 18%.
HD20: Heather Oake lost to Rep. Jim Pressell 65.6% to 34.5%.
HD21: Stephen Gray lost to Rep. Timothy Wesco 84% to 15%.
HD22: Rep. Curt Nisly lost to Rep. Craig Snow 73.1% 26.9%.
HD31: Andy Lyons lost to Rep. Ann Vermilion 73.9% to 26.1%.
HD33: Brittary Kloer lost to Rep. J.D. Prescott 58 to 42%.
HD47: Luke Campbell lost to Robb Greene in a race that also featured Rep. John Young. Greene had 47.9% of the vote to Young’s 29.9% and Campbell’s 19.4%.
HD41: Liberty Defense-endorsed candidate Richard Bagsby finished third with 28% in a race won by Mark Genda with 42.6%.
HD54: Melissa Meltzer lost to Cory Criswell in this open seat. Criswell had 39.6% while Meltzer had 11.3%.
HD56: Mark Pierce lost to Rep. Brad Barrett 74.1% to 25.9%.
HD57: Melinda Griesemer lost to Craig Haggard 66.7% to 33.3%.
HD60: Brittany Carroll lost to Rep. Peggy Mayfield 64.2% to 35.8%.
HD62: Greg “No Bull” Knott lost to Dave Hall 56.7% to 43.3%.
HD72: Jackie Bright Grubbs lost to Rep. Ed Clere 50.2% to 36.7%.
HD78: Sean Selby lost to Rep. Tim O’Brien 66% to 34%.
HD79: Russ Mounsey lost to House Republican Majority Leader Matt Lehman 66-34%. Lehman had sponsored the House Republican pandemic response legislation vetoed by Gov. Holcomb.
HD81: David Merver lost to Rep. Martin Carbaugh 65.3% to 34.7%.
HD88: Chrystal Sisson lost to Rep. Chris Jeter 74.9% to 25.1%.
HD90: David Waters lost to Rep. Mike Speedy 82.1% to 17.9%.
HD91: David Hewitt lost to Rep. Robert Behning 61.8% to 38.2%.
HD93: Rep. John Jacob lost to Julie McGuire 61.1% to 38.9%.
The Liberty Defense campaign was based on the notion that House Republicans weren’t conservative enough. The results revealed that voters thought most incumbents were sufficiently conservative.
A classic example was State Rep. Mayfield, who in 2013 was named a “Defender of Liberty” by the American Conservative Union. She was perplexed when I moved her race from “Likely” to “Leans” in her favor after the House Republican Campaign Committee made about $3,000 in late expenditures on her behalf. “I’ve always been told the hardest election is your first, the second hardest is your first reelection and the third is after new maps,” she said. “Over 50% of my district is new so there is a variable of the unknown at play. And never underestimate the power of the pissed off voter.”
Of the four Liberty Defense “victories,” Sen. Byrne had been elected three times in local races, Rep. Borders had held HD45 for most of the past two decades, Sweet had held office, and Hamilton County Councilman Fred Glynn had also won outside the label. Glynn had a six-vote lead over Suzie Jaworowski in the open HD32.
In Sen. Byrne’s defeat of Sen. Boehnlein, the victor’s allies said that Liberty Defense had nothing to do with it. Harrison County Republican Chairman Scott Fluhr told me, “While there were plenty of factors in Gary Byrne’s defeat of Kevin Boehnlein, the Liberty Defense organization wasn’t one. Gary Byrne wasn’t on their pre-election endorsement list and received no support from them. If they are saying that now, it might be post-election revisionism to make their rather sorry record look better than it actually was.”
As for Gov. Holcomb, who has been under attack by the far right for his pandemic-era restrictions as well as his veto of a transgender athletics bill (the governor maintains it was a poorly-written bill that confronted a problem that didn’t exist), he pointed to his 2020 reelection, where his 56.5% victory came with a record 1,706,739 votes.
“Let’s just review the facts: I ran a race,” Holcomb said. “I received more votes than anyone that’s run for governor in the history of this state.”