Three GOP senate candidates debate for first time

Mike Braun, Luke Messer and Todd Rokita face off for the first time. (WISH Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — For the first time, there was a debate among the three front-runners to challenge Indiana U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly in the senate race in November.

For an hour and a half, Rep. Todd Rokita and Rep. Luke Messer along with former State Rep. Mike Braun debated issues from health care to a possible gas tax raise.

The three are trying to differentiate themselves as the best candidate to square off against Sen. Donnelly.

Each candidate gave an opening statement.

“There is only one of us who stood with President Trump fighting crooked Hillary Clinton all the way,” said Rep. Rokita.

“I promise you we will stay focused on Joe Donnelly, beat him in this election and make sure that the United States Senate never quits on all of us,” said Rep. Messer.

“Our founders never intended this to be a career job. Do your service, get back to where you came from,” said Braun.

They all took shots at Sen. Donnelly. They all talked about overhauling the Affordable Care Act.

They all talked about medical marijuana.

“If medical marijuana helps, we should let people do it,” said Rep. Rokita.

“If you believe in free markets and freedom of choice, the answer is yes,” said Braun.

“A chronic patient that is has terminal illness and this is helping them then that is one area of policy,” said Rep. Messer.

Both Rep. Messer and Rep. Rokita cautioned against the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

They debated paid family leave. President Trump’s budget would include six weeks for new mothers and fathers.

“I’m not going to be for anything where the federal government dictates what you need to do at the business level,” said Braun.

“Would like to see it as part of the supply and demand discussion that an individual employer makes. A deal they have with their individual employees,” said Rep. Rokita.

“How are we going to pay for it? We’re not going to raise taxes to do that,” said Rep. Messer.

They gave opinions on a potential 25 cent per gallon gas tax increase, which President Trump is reportedly considering to overhaul billions of dollars in infrastructure.

“We need to look at spending current federal dollars better,” said Rep. Messer.

“It’s at least acknowledging that they don’t have the money to do it all on their own,” said Braun.

“You shouldn’t need to. We did a billion dollars. I just finished telling [Tony Katz]. We did a billion dollars in an infrastructure bill without raising taxes,” said Rep. Rokita.

There were no questions about any legislation about gun control or mental health in the wake of the Parkland, Florida high school shooting.

The debate moderator, Tony Katz from WIBC, said the focus tonight was on economic issues.

The primary for the Republican representative in the U.S. Senate race is in May.

The Indiana Democratic Party called all three candidates unworthy of representing Hoosiers as U.S. senator.

Spokesperson Michael Feldman said the three Republicans debating are interested in criticizing one another instead of focusing on the issues.

Feldman said the three support cuts to Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security and zeroed in on Rep. Rokita and Rep. Messer for supporting the new tax law for what he said adds trillions to the national debt.

At the same time, he said he’s not concerned about Sen. Donnelly’s chances.

“We’re going to focus on getting our message out there. Joe Donnelly is running the campaign he wants to run,” said Feldman.

This senate race has gotten some national attention. Republicans have targeted Sen. Donnelly’s seat as one that could flip to Republicans in November.