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Sunday, January 14, 2018 1:00 am

Messer tops GOP Senate straw poll

Rokita, Braun grumble about campaign tactics

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

U.S. Rep. Luke Messer won a popularity contest Saturday for six Republican candidates seeking a U.S. Senate seat representing Indiana.

The Indiana Republican Party announced that Messer, R-6th, received 147 votes out of 326 ballots cast by Hoosier GOP activists in a straw poll at the party's Congress of Counties in downtown Indianapolis. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-4th, finished second with 82 votes.

“We're excited by the momentum in our campaign and the grassroots support we're receiving from all across the state,” Messer said in a statement after the unofficial, non-binding vote at the Crowne Plaza hotel.

The state GOP had earlier described the straw poll as “the first grassroots barometer to measure early support” for candidates seeking the party's nomination in the May 8 primary election.

The nominee will face Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in the Nov. 6 general election in what is expected to be a close, expensive race that could help determine which party controls the Senate, where Republicans have a 51-49 majority.

Mike Braun, a former state lawmaker from Jasper who owns an auto parts distribution company owner, took third place Saturday with 36 votes. Kokomo attorney Mark Hurt was fourth with 29 votes, New Albany college administrator Andrew Takami was fifth with 20 votes, and Andrew Horning, an Owen County resident who works for a medical products company and has run frequently for public office as a Libertarian, was sixth with 12 votes.

The Congress of Counties was a two-day conference and training session for Republican activists from around the state. More than 500 people had registered to attend the conference, which offered panel discussions and presentations on candidate recruiting, campaign finance and communications strategies, the use of social media and data analysis.

A presentation scheduled for Saturday morning was titled “Defeating Joe Donnelly: The Plan.” Donnelly is among 10 Democratic senators running for re-election this year in states that Republican President Donald Trump won in the 2016 election.

The Indianapolis Star reported Thursday that Messer's campaign had offered to pay conference registration and hotel expenses for college students who wished to attend the Congress of Counties. The campaign said in an email message to students that “attendance at the straw poll is required” but that attendance at the remainder of the conference was optional.

Messer's campaign told the Star that it was paying for “a few dozen” students to attend.

Rokita's campaign accused Messer of trying “to rig” the straw poll, and Braun said Messer's tactic would “devalue” the results of the poll, the Star reported. But state GOP Chairman Kyle Hupfer told the Star, “I encourage people to get folks there any way they can.”

A congressman since 2013, Messer, of Greensburg, is a former state lawmaker and a former executive director of the state Republican Party. Although he and Brownsburg resident Rokita, a congressman since 2011 and a former two-term Indiana secretary of state, have been publicly bickering with each other since last spring, their congressional voting records are nearly identical. Each candidate portrays himself as a conservative who supports Trump.

Hupfer said in a statement that Saturday's straw vote “shows that Hoosier Republicans are fired up” about electing a senator “who will vote to cut taxes, reform health care and grow jobs in Indiana.”