Frustrated Indiana conservatives fell short in several primary races Tuesday in their drive to push the Republican-controlled state Legislature further to the right and saw one of their movement’s leaders lose his reelection bid.
The roughly two dozen so-called liberty candidates did see some victories in Republican legislative races across the state, with one defeating a 10-term incumbent in northern Indiana and another winning the nomination for a GOP-leaning open seat in suburban Indianapolis.
Several races remained uncalled Tuesday night, but most of the incumbent lawmakers overcame challenges from candidates who argued that the Legislature hasn’t been aggressive enough in attempting to ban abortion, enhancing gun rights and overturning COVID-19 restrictions that were ordered by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb.
Republican legislative leaders argued the “no compromise” stances adopted by many challengers aren’t practical. They tout the state’s low taxes and unemployment and broad private school voucher program among its conservative successes.
Unlike in other GOP races across the country—including Ohio, which also had a statewide primary Tuesday—the Indiana legislative contests focused on state issues, rather than which candidate is closest to former President Donald Trump or has his support.
The challengers said they were trying to tap into a deep resentment among voters—and even winning a few seats could nudge the Legislature further to the right.
It was unclear whether the leak of a draft opinion suggesting the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn a 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide had any impact in the primary. Indiana lawmakers didn’t pursue major anti-abortion action during this year’s session as they waited for a decision from the Supreme Court. If the court overturns Roe v Wade, those lawmakers could ask Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb to call the Legislature into a special session so they can act without having to wait until 2023.
“The vast majority of House Republicans, including myself, have been abundantly clear that we want to take action to further protect life should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn, in full or in part, Roe,” Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said in a statement Tuesday. “We will continue to await the court’s final decision.”
Indiana law generally prohibits abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with 99% of abortions in the state occurring at 13 weeks or earlier, according to a state Health Department report.
The state House GOP campaign operation gave more than $1 million to candidates for the primary—including Craig Snow, who defeated hard-right Republican Rep. Curt Nisly of Milford on Tuesday. Nisly and fellow GOP Rep. John Jacob of Indianapolis—also targeted for defeat—are heroes of the “liberty candidate” challengers for proposals blocked by legislative leaders, including a total abortion ban and seeking to void all state COVID-19 restrictions as far back as late 2020.
Meanwhile, the Liberty Defense PAC, which has worked to rally support for its endorsed candidates, had raised a total of about $95,000 by the end of March.
“Some of our incumbents are facing very, very engaged opponents,” Huston said. “You can’t take any chances. Our team has been doing everything they need to do, knocking on doors, lots of voter contacts, those types of things. Nobody should take it lightly.”
Some challengers say their movement grew from protests against COVID-19 shutdowns and complaints that GOP legislators didn’t take action to end Holcomb’s executive orders, including a mask mandate.
Lorissa Sweet, a County Council member from rural northern Indiana, defeated Rep. Dan Leonard of Huntington. Leonard, a top Huston lieutenant, drew the wrath of social conservatives for his frequent role in blocking proposals from Nisly and Jacob—either by raising procedural objections or not taking up bills assigned to the House committee he leads.
The challengers were unsuccessful against several other top Republicans, including House Majority Leader Matthew Lehman of Berne and several committee chairmen appointed by Huston. Meanwhile, Rep. John Young of Franklin lost his bid for a fourth term to a challenger who wasn’t among the Liberty Defense candidates.
The “liberty candidates” are predominantly running in heavily Republican districts, so even primary wins by far-right challengers would likely provide few opportunities for Democrats to dent the GOP’s current 71-29 House majority.
One voter favoring Jacob said he believed more legislators like him would better ensure personal freedoms and increase the push to restrict access to abortions in Indiana.
“I’m a conservative Christian, and I can see that in our culture today, there is so much moving in directions that are not Biblical, and I’m thinking that might be part of the pushback” against many current lawmakers, said Mike Teipen, 73, of Indianapolis. “It maybe rubs people too much the wrong way—they don’t want to take a strong stand on certain issues. But that’s what I think makes a good lawmaker.”