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IN THE NEWS: “Nasty” GOP primary feud goes public as both leading candidates blitz each other

INDIANAPOLIS – The GOP’s Republican primary has become one of the ugliest in the country before either candidate has gotten in, according to a deep dive in The Hill this morning. After both Congressman Messer and Congressman Rokita appeared to anonymously launch attacks at each other this spring in the press, the fighting is now out in the open, with one Rokita ally saying Congressman Messer “needs the primary.” An expensive early fight seems to be right down the road, with the eventual nominee weakened heading into the fall.

From The Hill: Reps clash in Indiana Republican Primary

The Indiana Republican primary to take on vulnerable Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly could come down to two House representatives.

But GOP Indiana Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, who both appear to be gearing up to run, will have to go through each other first. And judging by the jousting between the two lawmakers before they have even entered the race, things could get nasty.

“Their intentions are obvious in how they are treating each other,” a top Indiana Republican who is staying neutral told The Hill.

“This seems to be heading toward an opposition air war, because nothing has been brought to my attention where they are legitimately different on the issues.”

Tensions began to boil over last month when two negative stories — one for each potential candidate — appeared in the media.

The Associated Press reported that an Indiana city has paid Messer’s wife more than half a million dollars for consulting. Rokita’s camp has raised questions about whether the report could also bring up residency concerns for Messer, since his wife initially listed a Virginia address as her home.

And Rokita reportedly paid $100,000 of his campaign spending to a private plane company that he owns a stake in, according to a Politico Pro report.

Neither story alleged any violation of the law. But they each create a possible opening for an opponent to attack, which is why both congressmen have struck back.

Rokita blasted Messer in an email to supporters last month, accusing the congressman of planting the “nasty, false attacks” in the plane story and adding that “Messer is trying to distract from” the consulting story and its “residency issues.”

For his part, Messer disparaged the consulting story in an email obtained by Howey Politics Indiana, a high-profile state political journal, as a “complete hatchet job directly attributable to Rokita.”

Rokita has been more aggressive in his style out on the trail.

He’s openly tried to push Messer out of the race before he makes a decision on getting in, telling Howey Politics in April that Messer should opt to stay in the House and rise through leadership instead of trading his seat for a Senate bid.

And Indianans told The Hill that Rokita has been raising the AP’s consulting story and the idea of ensuing residency issues during speeches at political events across the state.

The two lawmakers have similar voting records and are just a year apart in age. Rokita is a bit better known statewide because of a stint as Indiana’s secretary of state, while Messer’s position in House leadership gives him many key allies.

Most Indianans, even those close to the potential candidates, see the race as a debate that’s bound to be about the style differences between what the neutral Indiana Republican source called a “more congenial” Messer and a “more aggressive” Rokita who is “willing to push the envelope.”

A source close to Rokita kept up that hard-charging style in a conversation with The Hill.

“Indiana Republicans should be glad there’s a primary, because Luke Messer is a flawed candidate that needs the primary,” the Rokita ally said.

But a source familiar with Messer’s thinking said Rokita’s attacks would turn off party insiders.

“It’s the time where the only people paying attention are opinion leaders and those who don’t take kindly to Republicans attacking Republicans,” the Messer source said.

“There’s something about the temperature of Rokita’s attacks that doesn’t seem sustainable over the next more than a year.”

Both men have roughly the same cash on hand for a potential bid. Messer ended March, the last campaign fundraising deadline, with a bit more than $1.6 million in his campaign account, compared to Rokita’s $1.55 million.

Neither congressman has officially declared his candidacy, so the next reports due in July will likely go a long way toward determining whether one candidate can pull ahead. Hefty dollar figures could also be used to scare off other primary challengers, or perhaps the other congressman, while weak fundraising could encourage more entrants.

A handful of other candidates have already waded in, though they are expected to run behind either congressman. But Indiana sources say that other big names could be interested in running, too.

State Rep. Mike Braun, who could self-fund, has been making calls about the race to gauge support, according to a source. And there’s chatter that state Attorney General Curtis Hill, who won more votes last year than any other candidate in Indiana history, is interested as well.

The Indiana Republican source said it’s possible that the member-on-member battle could create a small opening for a third candidate to emerge.

No matter how the primary shakes out, the sparring between Rokita and Messer is encouraging to Democrats hoping a rough primary could weaken the eventual GOP nominee.

Will Baskin-Gerwitz, the Indiana Democratic Party spokesman, told The Hill that the “ugly race to the bottom” will contrast well with Donnelly.