INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana's three Republican Senate candidates mercilessly attacked each other Monday night during the final debate before next week's primary election, offering little besides canned talking points and rehashed lines of attack as each sought an edge in what has proven to be a tight race.
Over the course of an hour, Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, as well as former state Rep. Mike Braun, repeatedly swore oaths of loyalty to President Donald Trump during the rollicking event.
One of the few policy differences to emerge in the back-and-forth was over a recent vote over a congressional spending plan that Trump signed into law last month. Messer voted for it; Rokita did not.
The rest was almost purely attacks in a race some national pundits have dubbed one of the nastiest primaries in America. The winner on May 8 will face Joe Donnelly, one of the Senate's most vulnerable Democrats.
Rokita and Messer repeatedly attacked Braun over his lengthy history of voting in Democratic primaries, including the 2008 race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Messer and Braun went after Rokita over yard signs that Trump's re-election campaign ordered Rokita to take down because they felt it implied a presidential endorsement that had not been offered. And Braun lampooned Rokita and Messer both as "career politicians."
"You know your (campaigns are) circling the drain and it's fun to watch it," Braun retorted.
Afterward, only Messer stuck around for a press conference that has traditionally followed events put on by the nonprofit Indiana Debate Commission. Still, it was little surprise given Rokita's previous threat to boycott the debate, which he didn't back down from until two weeks ago.
"I have said all throughout this campaign that I will go anywhere and debate anybody who shows up," Messer said. "Obviously we had a little drama even about that in recent weeks and months. An important part of this job is a willingness to stand and talk to you."
Indiana's Republican primary has been a no-holds-barred affair since before either Messer or Rokita formally entered the race last summer. The two, who are old Wabash College classmates, have attacked each other relentlessly. That was underscored last week when Rokita's campaign released a children's book strongly criticizing Messer for selling his family's house in Indiana and moving to suburban Washington.
Braun, who served three years in the Indiana Legislature, joined the race in August citing his ability to self-finance and the divisive tone, but quickly joined in the attacks.
On Monday, Rokita and Messer repeatedly attacked Braun for voting in Democratic primaries. They said it's suspicious that he was not a regular donor to Indiana GOP causes, given his private wealth which he has used to finance his campaign.
"He is running a TV ad war, spending $6 million to try to buy a Senate seat," Rokita said. "My fellow Hoosiers, don't let him do it. He is a Democrat in disguise."
Messer often had a similar rejoinder: "What other lifetime Republicans do you know who voted Democrat in Democrat primaries for 38 straight years?"
Braun, for the record, insists he is a lifelong Republican and only voted in Democratic primaries to have an impact in local elections. He looked to flip the script on Rokita and Messer, who he has dubbed the "Swamp Brothers."
"Todd Rokita is a lawyer that never really practices — career politician. Luke Messer is a lawyer who never really practices — career politician," said Braun, who owns and operates a national auto parts distribution business. "I'm an entrepreneur who did it in the real world."
During the post-debate news conference Messer accused Braun of being cynical, recounting a conversation the two had in a men's room at a recent Decatur County Lincoln Day dinner.
"Mike has said several things in this campaign that are just flat out not true," Messer said. "I asked him about it ... and he looked at me and said 'Luke, in this business everybody makes it up.' I think that's not OK."
But in a race where all three candidates have accused each other of being liars, it's a charge that Messer's opponents would likely be happy to direct right back at him.