Unexpected warning signs for Trump in busy Indiana primary

In 2016, Indiana put Donald Trump on the doorstep of the GOP presidential nomination. But eight years later, the state he called “Importantville” delivered his campaign some flashing red warning signs as Nikki Haley cleaned up in the suburbs.

By virtue of its late-in-the-nominating-calendar primary, the Hoosier state has always occupied a unique and occasionally powerful perch to make or break candidacies: Sen. Ted Cruz and then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich dropped out immediately after Trump’s victory that year. But the barn-red state also often acts as a pace car for Republicans nationally.

And in a primary that saw a record-breaking $98 million splash across the state, according to AdImpact, Tuesday was no exception.

A zombie Haley candidacy continued to punch above its weight in the Trumpiest of states: The former South Carolina governor is on track to break 20 percent for the first time since she dropped out of the race two months ago.

Outside of the presidential race, it was the panoply of open Republican primaries — for Senate, governor and three congressional seats — that made Indiana a major battleground for the various GOP factions fighting for influence in the party. On Tuesday, Sen. Mike Braun prevailed in the open race for governor, and Rep. Victoria Spartz barely survived a challenging primary.

Here are three things Indiana told us about the future of the GOP and the general election.

In a Trump vacuum, national money can still win the day

Indiana had four free-for-all congressional races, two of which — the 6th and the 8th districts — opened up because Reps. Greg Pence and Larry Bucshon, respectively, had endorsed former Vice President Mike Pence over Trump and saw their expiration date in D.C.

But Trump made no endorsements in those districts or two others — one open and the other the Spartz race — leaving national groups with a penchant for largely inexpensive media markets to fill the void as the Republican Party’s ideological wings sparred.

The 3rd District race to replace GOP Rep. Jim Banks, who won the nomination for Braun’s Senate seat on Tuesday, attracted millions of dollars in outside spending. That included America Leads Action, a super PAC formed earlier this year backed by wealthy donors Jay Faison and Rob Walton that has played in House races across the country in an attempt to block far-right candidates.

The group had come up empty so far, spending millions against two controversial Republicans — Brandon Gill in Texas and Mark Harris in North Carolina — who won their March primaries and are poised to win their general elections. And on Tuesday, former Rep. Marlin Stutzman, whom the group spent $1.8 million against, claimed the GOP nomination to replace Banks.

Stutzman had plenty of reinforcement: Club for Growth Action — which has been on the opposite side of America Leads Action earlier this cycle — dropped over $700,000 attacking nonprofit executive Tim Smith and former county judge Wendy Davis. Protect Freedom PAC, Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) group, and House Freedom Action, which is aligned with the Freedom Caucus, also supported Stutzman.

Stutzman’s win is a boon for the conservative faction of the party, which has been working on building its ranks by supporting such candidates in safe-seat primaries, where the Republican nominee is all but guaranteed to win the general election.

Still, America Leads Action did have one success on Tuesday. In the 8th District, former Rep. John Hostettler lost his comeback bid to state Sen. Mark Messmer. The group spent $1.6 million to block Hostettler — and it wasn’t the only outside group to do so. Much of the opposition to Hostettler was due to his past votes against Israel, prompting United Democracy Project, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s super PAC, and the Republican Jewish Coalition Victory Fund, which supported Messmer, to jump in. Combined, those two entities put up more than $2.8 million on advertisements to block Hostettler, according to AdImpact.

The only major candidate Trump did endorse was Banks, who cleared the primary field entirely as ambitious Republicans looked elsewhere and passed up a run for an open Senate seat.

Incumbency still matters

Spartz survived — but her long-term political standing is far from secure after first retiring in 2023, then reversing course shortly before the filing deadline to get on the primary ballot.

The 39 percent of the vote Spartz garnered was the lowest for any incumbent in a congressional primary so far this year, and that includes one incumbent who was defeated (GOP Rep. Jerry Carl of Alabama) and another who was dragged into a runoff later this month (GOP Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas).

It took everything Spartz had in the final stretch — including floating her campaign $700,000 of her own money in the last two weeks — to eke out a win. The Ukrainian-born, second-term representative from suburban Indianapolis voted against the Ukraine aid package that passed Congress last month after state Rep. Chuck Goodrich, the second-place finisher on Tuesday, had criticized her for supporting previous funding for Ukraine.

Spartz’s mercurial time in Congress has been marked by sizable staff turnover, sharp criticism of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the two years since Russia’s invasion and her successful un-retirement — for now.

Other incumbents easily secured wins on Tuesday, batting away minor primary challengers.

Trump still hasn’t locked up Haley Republicans

Indiana delivered the former president double-point margins in 2016 and 2020. But on Tuesday night, even though Trump won all of the state’s 58 delegates, Nikki Haley posted above-30-point performances in places like Marion County, home to Indianapolis, and affluent Hamilton County, its suburb to the north.

This is where Biden grew Democratic margins in 2020, and where Indiana Democrats have been targeting for years. And it’s the same kind of place where Trump has been weak throughout the 2024 GOP primary in other states. While virtually no one doubts Indiana will be in the Trump column come November, Tuesday’s results show a durable coalition for Haley.

In fact, Haley was on track to score more votes than the second-place finisher in the $40 million GOP gubernatorial contest, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, winning more than 100,000 votes. This, after Trump said, without evidence, that she wouldn’t make the ballot earlier this year.

The state’s senior senator, Todd Young, who has said he will not back Trump and outperformed the former president’s 2020 margin in his 2022 reelection bid, told POLITICO earlier this year he was “warm” to Haley’s candidacy before she dropped out. Former Vice President Mike Pence, an Indiana voter, has also said he would not back Trump. Spokespersons for both declined to say how either voted Tuesday.

Haley’s totals may have been boosted by voters outside the GOP base participating in the primary. Indiana voters don’t register with a political party — and with the Republican gubernatorial primary dominating the airwaves, a broader swath of voters than Trump’s core supporters may have been motivated to pull Republican ballots.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top