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Thursday, July 27, 2017 1:00 am

Messer seeks Senate seat held by Donnelly

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

U.S. Rep. Luke Messer announced Wednesday on Twitter he will seek the Republican nomination for the Senate seat of Democrat Joe Donnelly.

“We're in!!” Messer, R-6th, tweeted above what appears to be a campaign poster that states “I Like Luke U.S. Senate 2018.”

Messer had been publicly mulling a Senate run for months. He formed a statewide campaign finance committee in March and recently has been engaged in a bitter back-and-forth with his probable main rival in next May's GOP primary election, U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita.

Messer, 48, has been a member of the House since 2013, representing east-central and southeast Indiana in the seat that Vice President Mike Pence left to become governor. Messer is a top advocate for expanding school choice and voucher programs. As chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, he is the fifth-ranking GOP representative.

Messer did not elaborate on his tweet except to write in the same message, “See you at the picnic on August 12th.” His campaign announced later Wednesday in an email that the sixth annual Messer Family BBQ in Shelby County will be the “official kickoff” of his Senate campaign.

“The Senate has struggled in recent weeks, and Hoosiers are tired of it. We need a proven conservative leader in the U.S. Senate to work alongside Senator Todd Young and get things done,” Messer's campaign finance chairman, Greg Pence, said in the announcement. Pence is the vice president's brother.

Messer is a lawyer, a former member of the Indiana House from Shelbyville, a former executive director of the Indiana Republican Party and principal officer of the nonprofit advocacy organization School Choice Indiana Network.

Messer also is a former lobbyist who does not live in Indiana and is incapable of defeating Donnelly in the 2018 general election, according to Rokita's campaign.

On Tuesday, Rokita campaign consultant Tim Edson sent an email describing three “vulnerabilities” for Messer that would cause Donnelly to “crush” him in the general election.

Edson said those weaknesses are Messer's “history of influence as a lobbyist”; his “family's lucrative arrangement exposed by the Associated Press”; and, written in bold type, Messer's “decision to sell his home in Indiana and buy a home in the wealthiest suburb of Washington, DC,” which Edson wrote “will be the death knell of his campaign.”

The AP reported in May that Messer's wife, Jennifer Messer, earns $20,000 a month as a legal consultant for the Fishers city government. It also reported at the time that the address on his voter's registration is the Greensburg home of his mother.

Messer had been a lobbyist for School Choice Indiana Network; the Indianapolis law firm Ice Miller; and Utah-based Unspam Technologies, according to the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission database.

Messer issued a statement this month accusing Rokita of “planting misleading news stories and whispering distortions in back rooms.” Messer said he owns and grew up in his mother's Greensburg house, stays there when he's in Indiana and has a Washington-area home so that he, his wife and their children can live together.

He also wrote that his wife “is a distinguished Indiana lawyer who has practiced in Indiana her entire legal career,” adding that “it is only fair that she be allowed to continue that work while I serve in Congress.”

Rokita campaign manager Bryan Reed said in an email that Rokita's own decision on a Senate bid “is imminent. Todd's plain spoken approach, anti-elite track record of successful conservative reform, statewide experience and work ethic are huge assets against Joe Donnelly.”

Rokita, 47, a former Indiana secretary of state, and Messer were classmates at Wabash College, graduating a year apart.

Democrats reacted swiftly to Messer's tweeted candidacy announcement.

“Whether voting to ship jobs overseas, shut down the government this spring, or raise healthcare premiums for Hoosiers by over $1,000 every year, Congressman Messer has spent his political career siding with D.C. special interests over Indiana families,” said Will Baskin-Gerwitz, Indiana Democratic Party spokesman, in a statement. “The only Hoosier he's focused on is Congressman Rokita, with whom he shares a preference for harmful policies and a love of brutal personal attacks.”

Donnelly campaign manager Peter Hanscom said in a statement, “Despite Congressman Messer's entry into the Republican primary, there's still only one person on next year's Senate ballot who is deeply connected to the Hoosier electorate and has a proven track record of working across party lines to deliver for Hoosiers, and it's Joe Donnelly.”

Other announced Republican candidates for the Senate seat are Hamilton County businessman Terry Henderson; Kokomo attorney Mark Hurt; and New Albany college administrator Andrew Takami.

bfrancisco@jg.net