INDIANAPOLIS | Indiana’s Republican Senate primary has been characterized as one of the nastiest GOP races this year.
The three candidates — two U.S. House members and a businessman — did not disappoint at their first debate.
U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita and Mike Braun, an independently wealthy businessman and former state lawmaker, sparred last week over taxes, free trade and who was more of a political outsider in the mold of President Donald Trump.
U.S. Rep. Luke Messer bemoaned the attacks, suggesting they will only help Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in the general election. Donnelly is one of the most endangered Democrats in 2018, running in a state that Trump won by 19 percentage points.
The three Republicans are waging a bitter campaign — both Rokita and Messer have accused each other of being “unhinged” — for the right to challenge Donnelly. The primary is May 8.
Here’s a closer look at some of the candidates’ claims during the debate:
REP. TODD ROKITA: “Mr. Braun is responsible for the largest tax increase in Indiana history.”
THE FACTS: Braun, a former state lawmaker, did vote for a package of tax and fee hikes, including a 10-cent hike in the state’s per-gallon fuel tax in 2017. But so did a lot of other Republicans in the Indiana Legislature. It was all part of a Republican-backed effort, signed into law by GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb, to pump an estimated $1.2 billion a year into improving the state’s crumbling infrastructure.
But Purdue University economist Larry DeBoer says it’s misleading to characterize it as the state’s largest tax increase.
“The most recent (tax increase) is always the largest because of inflation,” said DeBoer, who has studied taxation in the state for decades.
Once inflation is taken into account, DeBoer said the largest tax hike in state history was likely approved in 1983, when sales, income and corporate income taxes were all increased to boost revenue during a recession.
What’s more, Rokita once advocated for the same kind of fuel tax increase he is now attacking Braun for supporting. In August 2015, Indiana’s neglected infrastructure became a major political liability after an Interstate bridge in Rokita’s district sank several inches, forcing a monthlong emergency closure.
“There’s already been 19 or 20 states that have raised their gas tax, because the federal government won’t, and as a result are going to have a better infrastructure,” Rokita said at the time. “And by the way, I don’t know of a politician that’s been unelected for that yet. So, I encourage all those in elective office — from the federal, to the state, to the local level — to look at these ideas.”
REP. LUKE MESSER: “Obamacare is a terrible law for working families that needs to go away.” However, later in the debate he touted Indiana’s Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0 program as “a successful program that’s been designed at the state level.”
THE FACTS: Messer is trying to have it both ways. Indiana’s Healthy Indiana Plan, commonly referred to as HIP 2.0, is funded almost entirely with Medicaid dollars made available thru former President Barack Obama’s signature law. The program pays for medical care, including drug treatment, for more than 400,000 low-income Indiana residents.
Messer is hardly the first Indiana Republican to obfuscate, or conveniently ignore that fact. Vice President and former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, whose administration designed and implemented HIP 2.0, has repeatedly denounced “Obamacare” while touting his own program.
Messer has called for repealing Obama’s law, which he would like to replace with federal block grants to states. However, the proposals that have been put forth to do so would have eviscerated funding for HIP 2.0 and likely resulted in many Indiana residents losing their coverage.
Studies last year by the consulting firm Avalere Health found that Indiana stood to lose up to $7 billion between 2020 and 2027 under various repeal bills that were being considered in Congress.
MIKE BRAUN: “I deal with American manufacturers. We buy their products. I don’t know where they get them made.”
THE FACTS: It would be surprising that Braun does not know where the products sold by his auto parts business, Meyer Distributing, are made. The former state lawmaker and independently wealthy candidate, has built much of his campaign around the claim that he is an expert businessman with technical know-how.
An online search reveals that dozens of the companies listed on Meyer Distributing’s website either sell or make products from foreign countries, among them China, Canada, Germany and Mexico. Meyer Distributing’s home page also links to some of their suppliers pages, with many clearly indicating that many aren’t American companies — counter to what Braun contends.
Records maintained by the website Panjiva.com, which tracks imports and exports, show’s Braun’s Jasper, Indiana, business has received shipments of goods from factories in China.
Additionally, the business characterizes itself as a nationwide distributor. Its home page features icons of the Canadian and Mexican flags, which translate the page into either French or Spanish with a click.