How Right Wing Candidates Fell Short Trying to Overtake a Solidly Republican Legislature

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A primary fight that played out in Indiana on Tuesday pitted social conservatives against establishment GOP incumbents.

They ran with the goal of moving the Republican-controlled Indiana legislature further to the right on issues ranging from abortion and gun control to LGBTQ civil rights and the public school curriculum.

But most of the social conservatives on Tuesday's ballot failed to unseat establishment Republicans.

The candidates backed by the Liberty Defense political action committee spent close to $100,000 and succeeded in ousting a Republican state representative who had held his northeastern Indiana seat since 2002. Apart from that race and three other contests, the Liberty slate appeared to fall short, according to unofficial results. Two conservative lawmakers who were allied with the slate also lost their reelection bids.

Still, the unprecedented number of Republican challengers and the conservative energy they brought to the campaign was significant, said Gerald Wright, a professor of political science at Indiana University. 

The legislative races didn't receive the attention of higher profile congressional and gubernatorial contests in neighboring Ohio, where the primaries provided a test of the power of a Trump endorsement. But the battle in Indiana between hard-right conservatives and establishment Republicans could reverberate in other states. 

"What it showed was the remarkable energy ... of the Trumpish wing of the party and that harkens back to the energy of the tea party movement in the 2010 election,'' Wright said. "There's that same energy there but in this case, it wasn't a steamroller.''

Amy Schlichter, president of the Liberty Defense PAC, could not be reached for comment. But in a video posted on the group's website, she delivered a message to the establishment Republicans, whom the group derided as "RINOs," or Republicans in Name Only.

"You cater to Biden's America, leaking that garbage right into the Hoosier state,'' Schlichter said. "Your incumbent protection plan is crumbling."

Republicans in Indiana control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office; it is one of 23 Republican trifectas across the U.S.

The Liberty candidates were also fired up about the rules and orders put forth by Gov. Eric Holcomb to control the spread of the coronavirus. Lorissa Sweet, the conservative Christian who unseated 20-year veteran Dan Leonard, pledged to fight for a parent’s right to make decisions, especially those related to health, education and religion and push back against "government overreach, unconstitutional edicts, and mandates,'' she said on her website. "The power still belongs to 'We the People!'" 

No Liberals Here

The Republicans who control the state legislature would not be considered liberals by any measure. On Tuesday, one day after a draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion repealing Roe v. Wade was leaked, Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston reaffirmed his support for a special session to pass an abortion ban and said most Republicans have been "abundantly clear that we want to take action to further protect life should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn, in full or in part, Roe.''

But Wright, the political science professor, said some state Republican leaders have been wary of wading too deeply into social issues. That’s partly the result of the strong pushback Indiana faced in 2015, when it passed a law barring government from infringing upon a person’s ability to exercise his or her faith without a compelling reason. 

Critics called it discriminatory and said it would have resulted in businesses refusing service to gay couples. The business community denounced the measure.

“It will be interesting to see how the Republican leadership in the legislature sits with this,’’ Wright said of the primary results. “They may say, ‘we did fine and it was a smart strategy not going as hard to the right as Texas and Alabama did on all of these issues.’’’

The Republican leaders in the Indiana legislature are “traditional Republicans, who support smaller government and lower taxes,’’ he said.

“There’s no doubt that they’re sensitive to economic development, which means they want corporate America to smile favorably on Indiana as a place where they can locate and hire good people,’’ Wright added. “The religious conservatism and the anti-LGBTQ [policies] and the restrictions on voting and a lack of restrictions on guns—those aren’t winning issues with corporate America, which has to worry about hiring a young, much more liberal workforce for their businesses.”

The establishment wing of the Republican party will probably go along with social issues, Wright said, because that’s where the energy in the party is. “But that’s not really what keeps them up at night,’’ he added.

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