Challengers try to push Indiana's dominant GOP more to right

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — As a mom and a Christian conservative, Lorissa Sweet found herself increasingly frustrated with Republicans in the Indiana Statehouse who she said were too willing to compromise on such issues as abortion and gun rights.

Then COVID-19 hit, and Sweet says those same legislators who campaigned as conservatives who believe in individual freedom stood by as she was ordered to shut down her dog grooming business. Kids were required to wear masks in school and some employers mandated workers be vaccinated, prompting protests by angry voters.

Now the County Council member from rural northern Indiana is among roughly two dozen “liberty candidates” running in Tuesday's primary — including challenges to several top-ranking GOP House members and bids for open seats. Both sides say the 23 challenges to sitting GOP lawmakers is unusually high in a state where Republicans control all statewide offices and Democrats have scant legislative influence.

Unlike in other GOP races across the country — including Ohio, which also has a statewide primary on Tuesday — the Indiana legislative contests have focused on state issues, rather than which candidate is closest to former President Donald Trump or has his support. And while it's unclear if the challengers can defeat incumbents backed by Republican leaders' multimillion-dollar campaign fund, they say they are tapping into a deep resentment among voters — and even winning a few seats could nudge the Legislature further to the right.

“You just assume when you elect Republican representatives and senators that they're going to reflect your values and do the right thing. And then they didn't,” said Sweet, 43, who is facing a far better-funded 20-year incumbent. “You get even five of us elected and you’re going to turn the tide."

For some of the challengers, the discontent started years before COVID, after Indiana lawmakers and then-Gov. Mike Pence in 2015 approved a religious-freedom law that was quickly criticized as allowing discrimination against gay people. Facing a national backlash and concerns from Indiana business leaders about possible boycotts, lawmakers altered the measure to make clear it cannot be used to discriminate, a change that infuriated some social conservatives.

At the heart of Tuesday's challenges is a conservative group, Liberty Defense, which touts a “no-compromise view” on issues like the religious objections law, banning all abortions and repealing Indiana’s “red flag” law, which allows police to seize guns from people who show warning signs of violence.

During a protest against vaccine mandates at the Indiana Statehouse last September, the group announced a plan to recruit 100 like-minded candidates in 100 days for various offices. Candidates say the group reached its goal in a matter of days, with many challenges growing from protests against the COVID-19 shutdowns and complaints that GOP legislators didn't take action to end Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb's executive orders, including a mask mandate.

Holcomb also enraged social conservatives in March when he vetoed legislation to ban transgender females from girls school sports; the Legislature is expected to override his veto in late May.

Liberty Defense PAC, which is largely funded by conservative individuals, has issued endorsements and promoted the “liberty candidates" on social media and elsewhere to stir up voters in what is likely a low-turnout primary since Indiana has no statewide races on the ballot. The PAC made donations in the hundreds of dollars to endorsed candidates, and has helped with mailers and items like hats.

Among the endorsed candidates are two incumbents, Reps. Curt Nisly and John Jacob, who have angered members of their own party with hardline stances, such as repeatedly pushing a complete ban on abortion. Nisly defeated a moderate Republican incumbent in 2014, making him an “inspiration” to the liberty candidates, his campaign chairwoman said.

Still, defeating incumbents is rarely an easy task, and the challengers are targeting some well known and influential lawmakers, along with some of the House's most conservative members. They have the backing of the House GOP campaign operation, which had raised nearly $3.4 million by end of March and has given over $1 million to candidates for the primary — including those trying to unseat Nisly and Jacob. Liberty Defense PAC had raised a total of about $95,000.

Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said the incumbents can run on a strong record of low taxes and unemployment, along with a strong budget surplus for the state. Legislative leaders decided earlier this year to hold off on major anti-abortion action until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a case that could overturn Roe v. Wade, but said they will return to a special session to act if the court gives states greater authority to limit it.

“We have to live in the practical world of getting things done and we have a lot of accomplishments,” Huston said. “We feel good.”

The “liberty candidates” are predominantly running in heavily Republican districts, so even primary wins by far-right challengers would likely provide few opportunities for Democrats to dent the GOP's current 71-29 House majority.

If the challengers end up winning legislative seats, Huston said, “they’ll have to figure out, do they want to be able to get things done or just focus on the things that probably aren’t practical to get done?”

Sweet, who has raised about $27,000 for her campaign, is running against Rep. Dan Leonard, 73, a top Huston lieutenant who had raised about $250,000 as of the end of March — more than half from the House Republican Campaign Committee.

Leonard has drawn the wrath of social conservatives for his frequent role in blocking proposals from Nisly and Jacob — either by raising procedural objections or not taking up bills assigned to the House committee he leads. He says the Liberty Defense candidates have an unrealistic view of what it's like to make laws, and the give-and-take that's sometimes necessary, even in a statehouse where Republicans hold a supermajority.

“They want it all or nothing and so consequently what they’re getting is nothing,” he said. “So why send someone to the Statehouse to get nothing? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Challengers like Brittany Carroll, a family law attorney running for a central Indiana seat, dismiss that argument.

Republicans hold larger legislative majorities in Indiana than in states such as Texas, she noted, yet Indiana lawmakers aren’t as aggressive in pushing issues such as the Texas ban on abortions after roughly six weeks of pregnancy. In 2020, Indiana voters supported Trump over Joe Biden by wider margins — 57% to 41% — than Trump's victory in Texas or several other GOP-led states.

“Indiana could be leading in terms of liberty, like Florida, like Texas,” Carroll said.

Carroll also said she is undeterred by the incumbents' fundraising advantages.

“No amount of money is going to overcome an angry voter.”