FREMONT, Ind. - Can you hear the Gipper’s voice from the wayback machine? “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
It was former California Republican Chairman Gaylord Parkinson who coined the phrase, and it became President Reagan’s mantra. What we’re seeing on an almost hourly basis, from the emerging Indiana U.S. Senate primary between U.S. Reps. Todd Rokita, Luke Messer to the White House, is a complete abrogation of the concept. The Grand Old Party and its “big tent” are being replaced with virulent fratricide.
Messer announced this past Wednesday he would enter the Senate race and pose a challenge to Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly next year. It came after weeks of needling by Rokita, who conducted a whisper campaign against Messer that he actually lives in an affluent Washington suburb, and took aim his wife’s lucrative legal work for the city of Fishers where she makes about $20,000 a month. The rumor mill spun that Meser might skip the race to stay on a House leadership track where he is fifth in ranking. There was an IndyStar story about how Rokita’s line of attack against Messer had been edited into the latter’s Wikipedia page.
In turn, Messer has accused Rokita of planting the Associated Press story of Jennifer Messer’s part-time income, though my sources tell me that the divisions within the Hamilton County Republican Party have become a fountain of innuendo and spite. “For months, Todd Rokita has spread lies and half-truths about my family, claiming we are not Hoosiers and attacking my wife’s legal career,” Messer said. “He started by planting misleading news stories and whispering distortions in back rooms. This past weekend, he lifted the veil and directly attacked my wife and family in a television interview.”
Messer added, “Todd’s attacks are especially remarkable because we’ve known each other for 29 years. We went to Wabash College together. Later, we served together in the Indiana Statehouse. It’s clear that he will do and say almost anything to advance his political career. Apparently, truth or integrity won’t get in the way.”
Tim Edson, a campaign consultant for Hoosiers for Rokita, explained last week, “Todd had nothing to do with the Associated Press reporting, and neither Todd nor the campaign has attacked Luke Messer’s family. Luke Messer is pounding the table and feigning outrage in an effort to distract from an embarrassing fundraising quarter and the negative stories dogging his campaign.”
Greg Pence, Messer’s finance chairman and brother of the vice president, told me last week, “I am disappointed we have two Republican congressmen, one is attacking the other’s family and no one has announced anything yet. I think it’s inappropriate. Todd Rokita has gone ahead and attacked a fellow Republican’s wife. I understand once people are in primaries, but nobody’s announced anything. So why is he attacking Luke Messer?”
Asked if President Reagan’s 11th Commandment is now moot, Pence said, “All the rules have changed. I can’t answer that.” Would Messer attack Rokita’s family once everyone has declared entry? “He’s never mentioned anything like that. I hope not,” Pence said. “I hope he never goes that way.”
With the congressional approval 23 percent in a Reuters Poll and 10 percent in an Economist Poll, the rancor between Reps. Messer and Rokita could allow other declared candidates - Atlanta, Ind., businessman Terry Henderson, New Albany educator Andrew Takami, and Kokomo attorney Mark Hurt - to make the case that Capitol Hill is the Reagan antithesis, a stinking, belching smudgepot. Attorney General Curtis Hill hasn’t ruled out a running, noting that he launched his statewide campaign from Elkhart and not the Indianapolis power center. “I think people are looking for bold, fresh leadership in all areas of government, including the United States Senate,” Hill said.
And there’s State Sen. Mike Delph of Carmel and State Rep. Mike Braun of Jasper who might jump in. Delph told me in June that a “conservative lane” exists in the race and added, “The U.S. Senate race is wide open. I don’t think being a sitting member of Congress is the best advantage. The public is very dissatisfied with Congress.”
This dissonance is firmly rooted in the White House and Capitol Hill inside the Republican Party. It doesn’t get any weirder than the White House we’ve seen over the past couple of days. President Trump and Vice President Pence are openly antagonizing the president’s most loyal early supporter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions with their “time will tell” job security quotes. New Communications Director Anthony “Mooch” Scaramucci is targeting White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on Twitter over “leaking” his publicly accessible financial disclosures.
Folks, you just can’t make this stuff up.
Are there political ramifications from all this dysfunction? Gallup’s Trump approve/disapprove numbers from Indiana - 47 percent approve, 48 percent disapprove - in a survey of 1,596 likely Hoosier voters reveals an erosion of support just eight months after Trump carried the state with a 20-percent plurality. That contrasts with a poll conducted for Messer’s Senate campaign, which reported an 83 percent job approval, but that poll included only likely Republican voters, who now have a front row seat to the coming civil war.
Brian A. Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.