Senate candidate Mike Braun speaks during the Indiana Republican Senate Primary Debate among Braun, Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, Monday, April 30, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, Pool)

Indiana voters sort out 'Dante's Inferno' GOP Senate primary

May 08, 2018 - 6:40 pm

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Republican voters in Indiana will pick a nominee Tuesday to challenge one of the nation's most vulnerable Democratic senators, wrapping up a GOP primary so dominated by animosity and personal attacks that one top state party official described it as "Dante's Inferno."

With little daylight on key conservative issues to separate the candidates, stylistic preferences seemed likely to decide the race involving U.S. Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer and former state Rep. Mike Braun.

The winner advances to a November matchup with Sen. Joe Donnelly, a critical seat for Democrats to hold as they try to inch closer to controlling the chamber. But while Republicans in the reliably red state have salivated for years at the prospect of ousting Donnelly, some worry the bitter race will have done lasting damage to whoever wins.

"This race has slowly but surely descended into Dante's Inferno," John Hammond III, who represents Indiana on the Republican National Committee, previously told The Associated Press.

All three candidates have been the subject of unflattering news stories that have dredged up out-of-state living arrangements, questionable uses of tax dollars, drunken-driving convictions, voting histories and ethical transgressions.

Meanwhile, the three have fallen over one another to assert they'd be President Donald Trump's biggest ally in the Senate.

Rokita in particular has tested whether a Republican candidate not named Trump can find success by adopting the president's over-the-top and confrontational style.

His campaign slogan is "Defeat the Elite," and he is seen in TV ads drinking beer, firing an AR-15 rifle and donning one of Trump's red "Make America Great Again" hats.

His campaign even wrote a children's book attacking Messer for selling his family's Indiana home and relocating to the Washington area after his election to Congress. But Rokita, who presents himself as a strict fiscal hawk, also drew scrutiny over his use of more than $3 million in public money on self-promotion, as well as allegations of ethical improprieties.

After some early skirmishes with Rokita last summer, Messer tried to rise above the fray, insisting that he was "laser focused" on defeating Donnelly while bemoaning the personal attacks. But he shed that approach months ago and is now waging a two-front negative ad campaign against both of his opponents.

Messer was highly critical of Trump throughout the 2016 general election. He has since come around, suggesting the president should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize while praising the "Trump agenda" — if not always the president's inflammatory rhetoric and tweets.

Then there's Braun, who some national race watchers have picked as their favorite to win. He's a multimillionaire owner of a national auto parts distribution business who loaned more than $5.4 million of his own money to his campaign. He's on pace to have spent roughly twice as much money as either Rokita or Messer.

But despite the outsider image and blitz of TV advertising, Braun continues to be dogged by his lengthy history voting as a Democrat in Indiana primary elections. Braun says he's a lifelong Republican and only did it to have an impact on local races, but his opponents have used that, as well as his vote in the Legislature to hike gas taxes, to attack him.

Tom Mote, 66, of Indianapolis voted for Braun because he campaigned as an "outsider" and was turned off by fighting between Messer and Rokita.

But he was less optimistic about his party's chances of beating Donnelly.

"Donnelly's been very low-key and not very controversial," said Mote. "It's a Republican state, but it's hard to beat an incumbent."

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