Indianapolis (CNN)Luke Messer says President Donald Trump deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. Todd Rokita is introducing a resolution to end special counsel Robert Mueller's "witch hunt" into Trump's campaign. Mike Braun wants Indiana voters to know he's a convention-busting businessman -- "just like President Trump."
Indiana's GOP Senate primary is a contest to prove who loves Trump the most
The bloody Republican primary in one of the nation's most competitive Senate races has offered a window into Trump's takeover of the GOP two years after he knocked Ted Cruz out of the race and effectively clinched the party's presidential nomination here two years ago.
The three candidates vying to take on first-term Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly -- Rokita and Messer, both House members, and Braun, a former state representative and auto parts distribution company owner -- are each casting themselves as Trump acolytes in their closing arguments ahead of the May 8 contest.
"When the Democrats are getting ready to wrongfully impeach this President, who are you going to trust to stand by your side?" Rokita, who has donned a "Make America Great Again" hat in a TV ad, said at the end of the fourth and final primary debate Monday night.
Minutes later, Messer's campaign blasted out an announcement of its "Make the Senate Great Again" tour.
In the race's closing days, the three candidates are attacking each other as insufficiently supportive of Trump.
For Messer and Rokita, the embrace of Trump is particularly revealing. In the pre-Trump era in Indiana, both crafted state-level images as reformers -- Messer on education, Rokita pushing his own party to overhaul redistricting laws to prohibit gerrymandering.
And during the 2016 presidential campaign, both expressed doubts about Trump. Messer cast Trump as a race-baiter who was a "hard candidate for Republicans to swallow." Rokita called Trump "someone who is vulgar, if not profane."
Now? Neither will say a negative word about the President.
"We are far stronger under the leadership of this President." Messer said Monday night. Rokita called himself a "true ally of President Trump in the Senate." And Braun said he's "going to agree with (Trump) on most things."
It's Braun who -- largely because he's generally seen as the front-runner -- in recent weeks has faced the sharpest criticism. For decades, in southwestern Indiana's Daviess County, records show he voted in Democratic primaries for decades, through 2012.
Braun accurately noted that until recently, though the area had voted for Republicans for national office, Democrats controlled local politics. Indiana's primary is open, meaning voters are free to choose whichever primary they prefer.
But Rokita and Messer are labeling Braun "a lifelong Democrat." In an ad, Rokita says that Braun "voted for Obama or Hillary -- wow."
Braun responded that the two don't like that he's the most conservative candidate in the race.
"They're circling the drain. They know they're losing their career jobs -- thank goodness," he said Monday night.
For months, the race looked like a head-to-head showdown between Messer and Rokita to settle a rivalry that dates back to their days at Wabash College.
But Braun upended the race, largely by spending $6 million of his own money on television ads that first launched in November, months before Rokita or Messer would go on the air.
Unlike other states such as West Virginia, where coal baron Don Blankenship went from prison into the Senate race, and Arizona, where controversial sheriff Joe Arpaio would imperil the GOP's chances of holding the seat, national Republicans see all three candidates in Indiana as capable of competing with Donnelly in November -- so they've stayed out of it.
That's left the candidates to settle their own scores.
Messer said he confronted Braun several weeks ago at a Decatur County GOP event over a series of claims "that are just flat-out not true, and I believe he knows they're not true."
"He looked at me and said, 'Luke, in this business, everybody makes it up,'" Messer said of Braun after the debate.
In Monday night's debate, Rokita also took shots at Braun, accusing him of "trying to buy a Senate seat" and, in a reference to a Braun TV ad, "running a cardboard cut-out campaign. He has no substance."
It's no wonder Braun has gotten under the skin of the two House members: His ads have exploited a blind spot in the personal rivalry between two men who think they're nothing like each other, and make them look like the same person.
In one ad -- inspired by the candidates' first debate, when both Rokita and Messer wore dark suits, white shirts and red ties -- Braun travels the state with cardboard cut-outs of the two, asking flummoxed voters which one is which while lumping their records together.
Rokita and Messer haven't shown up at debates in the same outfit again. On Monday night, Messer wore a navy suit with a light blue shirt and a yellow tie; Rokita had on a black suit with a white shirt and red and blue tie.
Another spot features child actors -- one for Rokita and one for Messer -- in the same outfits arguing with each other in school over who will be the senator, while a child playing Braun sits in the back of the class and reads an economic textbook.
Over coffee Tuesday morning at a diner in northwestern Indianapolis, Braun said in business, "I've had to outmaneuver and outwit guys a lot quicker than the two of them."
He dismisses the two as career politicians with no real-life experience.
"It pains them when I say things like, 'they've never signed the front side of a paycheck.' It's stuff they can't escape from," he said. "As bitter as the feud is between the two of them, seeing the swamp brothers come together is an amazing thing that you only see in politics."
If elected, Braun said he isn't calling for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's ouster, acknowledging that "with a one vote margin, that's a tough job."
But, he said, he'd immediately pursue term limits, and would seek to join the leadership ranks. "I would love to get involved in leadership and will stick my neck out if I see the opportunity to change things."