The three candidates in Indiana’s Republican U.S. Senate primary share similar views on many topics, but one issue struck a cord during a debate Tuesday night: federal spending.
The debate, which featured U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, U.S. Rep. Luke Messer and former state Rep. Mike Braun, was hosted by Americans For Prosperity and moderated by WIBC-FM 93.1 host Tony Katz at Emmis Communications Corp.'s headquarters on Monument Circle.
The three Republicans are fighting to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly in the fall.
The candidates were asked about economic issues including taxes, health care and paid family leave, and frequently found common ground with each other.
But the biggest fireworks of the night came when when Katz asked Messer and Rokita to discuss their votes on the spending bill that was passed by Congress on Feb. 9, reopening the federal government after it was partially shut down for the second time in less than a month. Rokita voted against it, while Messer supported it.
“I don’t vote for bills that spend money that has yet to be printed,” said Rokita, who was among 67 House Republicans to vote against the measure. “And that's exactly what’s going on right now.”
Messer said President Donald Trump asked Congress to pass the bill, which included $165 billion in extra military spending, so he voted for it.
“The choice before us was a choice for our troops,” Messer said.
Braun attempted to sidestep the question on whether he would have supported the spending bill, but when pushed by Rokita to answer it, Braun said he would have voted against it.
“This politician didn’t answer the question,” Rokita said. “I said ‘no.’ Luke said, ‘yes,’ and we still don’t know where he stands.”
“I would not have voted for it,” Braun said.
Braun later added that “you gotta have a backbone” in D.C. and can’t just agree to something because Trump asked for it.
Another issue the candidates slightly differed on was medical marijuana.
Rokita said he thinks marijuana can be a gateway drug, so he wouldn’t support legalizing it, but if it helps people struggling with an illness, then it could be OK.
Messer also described marijuana as a gateway drug, but said he would consider it for chronically-ill patients. He suggested waiting to see what happens in Colorado where marijuana became legal in 2014.
Braun, on the other hand, said he supports the idea of legalizing medical marijuana.
“If you believe in free markets, freedom of choice, then the answer is ‘yes,’” Braun said.
On whether businesses should be required to provide paid family leave, all three agreed that it’s probably best left to the private sector to decide, because they don’t want the government to have to fund the initiative.
The candidates also agreed they would opposing raising the federal gas tax, even though Braun voted for the increase to the Indiana gas tax in 2017 when he was still serving in the state legislature.
Braun spent much of the evening casting himself as a businessman and an outsider to Washington, D.C., and argued that Rokita and Messer have had years to fix problems with health care, social security and Medicare.
Meanwhile, Messer and Rokita repeatedly aimed their comments at Donnelly to argue that they were the best candidate to face the sitting Democrat.
“Who do you trust to beat Joe Donnelly?” Rokita said. “Who do you trust to get the job done?”
Messer stressed that he is “laser-focused” on Donnelly.
“The U.S. Senate is broken, and Joe Donnelly is part of the problem,” Messer said.
One nation hot topic that did not get any attention Tuesday night was gun control.
“This debate will not address guns,” Katz said at the beginning of the debate. “We are focused on the economic issues at hand.”