The three Indiana Republican candidates running for the U.S. Senate spent much of Sunday night's debate positioning themselves as the biggest supporters of President Donald Trump.
Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, both members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and former state Rep. Mike Braun, debated for the second time this year as they compete in the May 8 primary to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly in the November election. WISH-TV Channel 8 sponsored and televised the debate.
The candidates answered questions about this weekend's airstrikes in Syria; the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program; and the special counsel investigation, led by Robert Mueller, into the Trump administration and the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.
All three said they supported the air strikes, building a wall on the border with Mexico before settling the DACA issue, and ending the Mueller investigation.
While the candidates agreed on most policy issues, they also took opportunities to bash each other.
Messer called Braun a lifelong Democrat and accused Rokita of voting against Trump on hard issues.
“A Harvard Democrat is not a very likely person to stand up for Hoosier values in Washington,” Messer said of Braun, referring to Braun's MBA.
Rokita attacked Braun for supporting the Common Core federal education standards while he served on a local school board and blasted Messer for living in Washington, D.C., while representing Indiana in Congress.
“I’m glad we’re doing it early,” Rokita said of the debate. “It gives Luke a chance to get home tonight on the last plane.”
Braun turned on Rokita and Messer, saying they are lifelong politicians who have not gotten the job done.
“What I’m worried about is guys like these two who have been in the game of politics for a long time, that make the wrong calculations when they’re out there in terms of how they vote,” Braun said.
On the topic of arming teachers in schools, all the candidates said they supported training teachers to carry guns in school.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun,” Rokita said.
“When it comes to having somebody that is willing and able and trained within our schools to have a gun, I think it’s going to be a better thing to have,” Braun said.
“We need to champion Second Amendment rights, which law-abiding Hoosiers respect and demand, and also look out for schools,” Messer said. “We can do both.”
All three candidates said they supported Trump’s proposed tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum, which led China to threaten to impose tariffs on American products, such as pork, beef, cars and soybeans.
“I think most Hoosiers I talk to applaud this president for finally standing up to them,” Messer said. “They steal our intellectual property, they manipulate their currency and they treat our products unfairly."
“Free trade and reciprocal trade is what the world economy is based on, but when you get an outsider, like Donald Trump, it’s not going to be the same dynamic we’re used to—business as usual in Washington,” Braun said.
“Our trade deficit is the worst we’ve had it in world history. We have got to try something different,” Rokita said. “We’re doing this in a very targeted way, and if an industry is being affected after a while inequitably, let’s make some adjustments based on data.”
The candidates differed on two pieces of government funding legislation—the budget and the omnibus spending bill. Messer voted for both bills while Rokita voted against them in Congress.
“My position on that funding bill was 100 percent the position of the president of the United States,” Messer said.
“The president couldn’t stand this spending bill,” Rokita said. “He threatened to veto it. He complained about it at every turn.”
“It was a classic example of Democrats and Republicans holding hands,” Braun said. “We were down to $600 billion deficits. Now we’re right back up to a trillion.”
Messer said the bills were necessary to protect the men and women of the military, while Rokita countered that bills did not provide funding for a border wall or defund Planned Parenthood.
Before the debate, protesters outside the venue voiced their opposition to the three candidates.
Protesters held signs that said, “Want our vote? Stop outsourcing our Hoosier jobs” and “The GOP’s three stooges: Rokita, Braun, Messer.”
“All three candidates showed off their new positions on trade, pretended to care about the debt after supporting the deficit-busting McConnell tax plan, and tried to find new ways to hide their desire to cut Medicare and Social Security,” John Zody, Indiana Democratic Party chairman, said in a written statement.
The Indiana Debate Commission will host a debate on April 30 that will be broadcast at 7 p.m. at WFYI-TV in Indianapolis. Messer and Braun, have agreed to participate in the debate while Rokita has declined.