Long-Time College Rivals Battle It Out In Indiana Senate Primary

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Jack Crowe Political Reporter
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Two former college classmates and long time political rivals have taken to trading personal insults in an effort to capture Indiana’s Senate primary.

Republican Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita attended Wabash College together 25 years ago and have been political rivals ever since. The winner of the primary contest will have what is widely considered to be the GOP’s best chance to usurp a current Democratic Senate seat. Indiana’s Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly is particularly vulnerable as Trump carried the state by 19 points in the presidential race.

Despite having officially begun their respective campaigns only one week ago, the two former classmates have already exchanged a volley of personal insults. Rokita, 47, began calling attention to the $240,000 fee Messer’s wife’s collected as a consultant to a small Indiana town in May, after an AP report exposed the arrangement.

Messer, who has suggested Rokita was responsible for the AP report, criticized Rokita for going after his wife and accused him of “spreading lies.” Rokita responded by questioning his rival’s mental health, calling him “unhinged” and a “ticking time bomb.”

Messer, who is considered a political insider, rose quickly through the Indiana state legislature with a reputation for coalition building and political flexibility. Rokita did not enjoy the same quick success. Colleagues knew him as a political outsider known for taking a hard stand on a number of treacherous issues.

“Todd has a sense that ‘Messer gets all the breaks and I don’t,'” one GOP operative told Politico. “Now they’re placed in a zero-sum game, and their underlying feelings come out.”

Rokita has developed a reputation as a difficult boss, often calling his employees late at night while Messer has had an easier time recruiting and retaining employees. In fact, a number of former Rokita supporters and advisors have defected to join Messer’s primary campaign. Rokita’s former campaign manager, Tom John, and prominent Indiana lobbyist Bob Grand, who helped Rokita raise money and make ads, are among the defectors.

“Todd has been more of a squeaky wheel than Luke,” said Dan Dumezich, chairman of Rokita’s finance committee. “Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and sometimes the squeaky wheel just irritates people.”

The pair of long time rivals have clashed over a number of issues, most recently due to differences on education policy. After both men succeeded in rising to federal politics as House members, Messer jeopardized Rokita’s longstanding education reform effort by insisting on the inclusion of school vouchers in the 2015 bill.

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