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Indiana Senate leaders face primary challenges

April 17, 2016

The two most-powerful leaders of the Indiana Senate are working to fend off Republican primary challengers who have criticized their handling of contentious issues in the GOP-dominated General Assembly.

Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long, of Fort Wayne, faces criticism going into the May 3 primary from social conservatives for pushing an unsuccessful proposal this year that would have extended state anti-discrimination protections to lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

The opponent to Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley of Noblesville argues he hasn't done enough to boost funding for schools and road projects in the fast-growing suburban area north of Indianapolis.

Both Long and Kenley have big campaign funds and are taking the challenges seriously—knowing that they both claimed their current Senate leadership positions after their predecessors suffered Republican primary defeats.

John Kessler, director for Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne's Center for Economic Education, has picked up support from tea party and social conservative groups in opposing Long in a campaign that reflects the national rift in the GOP between far-right conservatives and their establishment counterparts.

Kessler, who opposes expanding gay-rights protections, said Long hasn't been listening to voters in the district after two decades in the state Senate.

"He's been here too long," Kessler said. "Let's give the people of our Senate district a voice and have an alternative."

Steve Shine, chairman of the Allen County Republican Party in Fort Wayne, said state leaders like Long often face local backlash because of the scope of their positions.

"He has another degree of leadership responsibilities in trying to meld various opinions together across the state," Shine said. "He not only serves people in the district, but he has to serve people of the state given his leadership position."

Long, who didn't return messages seeking comment for this story, said when Kessler entered the race in February that he had anticipated a primary challenge because of his involvement with the gay-rights proposal.

Scott Willis, a Westfield engineer challenging Kenley, said the short-term road funding plan that Kenley helped negotiate through the Legislature this year didn't do enough to help local communities. He said he also thinks the state's school-funding formula neglects suburban areas like Hamilton County.

"At a minimum, you have to be engaged with your community," Willis said. "From what I've learned, that has not been happening, and the leaders throughout my district have been frustrated with what's come out of the Senate."

But Kenley, who has a hand in nearly all money-related matters before the Legislature, said he has had to balance the funding needs for growing school districts with those in lower-income urban and rural areas.

"It has taken some time to put equity in the funding formula," Kenley said. "I'm probably one of the guys in the Senate that has pushed hardest."

Long and Kenley both understand the perils that legislative leaders can face in a primary. Long's predecessor as Senate chief—Sen. Robert Garton, of Columbus—held the spot for 26 years before he was defeated in the 2006 primary, while a previous Senate budget writer Larry Borst, of Greenwood, lost a 2004 primary challenge after 36 years in office.

Long, who started 2016 with more than $650,000 in campaign money, has aired television ads in Fort Wayne. One of those featured the chairwoman of the county Right to Life chapter endorsing him in an appeal to social conservatives.

Kessler is known to many local Republicans and is running a door-to-door campaign that could threaten Long, said Andrew Downs, a political analyst at Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne.

"He still has access to what could be called a quiet campaign, which could be more dangerous than a loud campaign," Downs said. "If someone is walking neighborhoods and hits 100 houses a day, that's happening under the radar."

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