INDIANAPOLIS – The “personal” rivalry between Congressman Messer and Congressman Rokita that undergirds the “nastiest” primary race in America may extend all the way back to their time as students at Wabash College, according to a new report from Politico.
Their deep dive into the primary thus far goes all the way back to the two men’s time together as classmates, noting that while they haven’t always been enemies, they certainly are divided now. Congressman Rokita has driven away many of his past backers, as the article details, and made enemies of some Indiana Republicans while secretary of state, when Congressman Messer was serving as a state representative. “Todd has always been more of a squeaky wheel,” said Congressman Rokita’s own finance chairman. “Sometimes the squeaky wheel just irritates people.”
The slugfest underway between Republican Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita in Indiana isn’t just for the right to compete for possibly the GOP’s best opportunity to seize a Senate seat from Democrats in next year’s midterms.
It’s a chance to finally settle the score between two ambitious pols who’ve been vying to outdo one another politically since they graduated from the same small college more than 25 years ago.
Yes, this one is personal.
Their campaign didn’t officially get underway until last week, but Messer, 48, has already accused Rokita of attacking his wife and “spreading lies” about his record. Rokita, 47, has questioned his rival’s mental health, calling Messer “unhinged” and a “ticking time bomb.”
More than a dozen professional colleagues and personal acquaintances painted the hostility between Rokita and Messer as the product of three decades of pent-up rivalry. The two men, who both declined interview requests, have climbed Indiana’s political ladder alongside each other for years and even attended the same small, all-male Wabash College together in the early 1990s — a school whose unofficial motto, a former dean noted with a touch of irony, is “competition without malice.”
“I’ve been watching the race between Todd and Luke,” said David Hadley, the former dean of students at Wabash College, “and wondering if that’s going to carry through or not.”
Over the years, Messer has enjoyed the full embrace of Indiana’s political elite, which appointed him to a seat in the state Legislature and embraced him as part of its leadership. That same elite has always kept Rokita at bay.
Rokita became one of the nation’s youngest statewide elected officials when he was elected Indiana’s secretary of state at age 31. But he made enemies among Republicans in the state Legislature, which years later redrew Rokita’s congressional district in a way that put his home on the wrong side of the new boundary. Many of Indiana’s most prominent political leaders, including Vice President Mike Pence’s brother Greg, have lined up behind Messer. And when Rokita put his name forward for governor last year when Pence became Trump’s vice presidential nominee, the state Republican central committee instead went with now-Gov. Eric Holcomb, a former party chairman.
“Todd has a sense that ‘Messer gets all the breaks and I don’t,’” said one GOP operative. “Now they’re placed in a zero-sum game, and their underlying feelings come out.”
They have not always clashed, though their careers have been entwined from their earliest days. The affable Messer was the starting middle linebacker and captain of the football team at clubby Wabash, which has produced an unusual number of Indiana politicians for its size, while the hard-charging Rokita worked at the student newspaper.
When the secretary of state race came up in 2002 and Rokita decided to run, Messer, who had made a failed bid for Congress and then became the executive director of the Indiana GOP, passed on running himself and instead worked to raise money, make ads and bring in staff to elevate the relatively unknown Rokita. Bob Grand, a longtime Indiana lobbyist who is now supporting Messer, described Messer as a “tireless advocate” for getting Rokita elected.
But many of the men who helped Rokita defeat a slew of other prominent Republicans in the primary have since abandoned him and are backing Messer for Senate, including his campaign manager Tom John and Grand. Rokita has gone on to earn a reputation as an exacting boss, prone to calling staff late at night.
“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.”