Far right fails to overthrow establishment GOP in Indiana Statehouse races

Kaitlin Lange
Indianapolis Star

Despite a deluge of candidates backed by far-right activist groups in Tuesday's Republican Statehouse primary, establishment Republicans emerged with control of the Statehouse. It wasn't the big shakeup social conservatives were hoping for, and the supermajority isn't poised to lurch further to the right. 

The far-right Liberty Defense PAC made waves first by encouraging people to run for office and then by endorsing 26 candidates in the May primary — many of whom faced Republican lawmakers seeking reelection.

Their message: the establishment supermajority in the Statehouse hasn't done enough to protect personal liberties or fight against abortion or push back on government overreach. There shouldn't be compromises. 

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Only five of those candidates won the primary. And only one was a Statehouse newcomer who defeated an incumbent. 

House lawmakers, though, were successful in ousting two far-right members from their own caucus, both endorsed by the Liberty Defense PAC.

Laura Merrifield Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Indianapolis, said the divide within the party has grown over the last two years, but the message the far-right conservatives were espousing must not have resonated with enough primary voters.

"In the end, elections are the opportunity for constituents to voice their opinions and overwhelmingly, voters stood by the mainstream Republican party in voting in support for their candidates," Merrifield Wilson said.

Election night was by no means a blowout. There were some signs of success in the primary for those far-right groups. 

Lorissa Sweet, a candidate backed by the Liberty Defense PAC bested longtime Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, in House District 50, in one of the biggest surprises of election night.

State Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, speaks during a vote by the Indiana House representatives on the redistricting maps  Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis.

As a business owner frustrated by Gov. Eric Holcomb's decision to implement a stay-at-home order early in the pandemic, she ran to the right of Leonard, who led the prominent House committee that declined to hear multiple resolutions that would have ended Holcomb's state of emergency throughout the pandemic. 

That case could have been an outlier, with insiders saying Sweet worked a tough ground game and Leonard relied on traditional advertising. 

Other Liberty Defense PAC candidates were victorious in races featuring no incumbents. 

The other ousted lawmakers

Altogether six Republicans were ousted. Of those, three were defeated by other Republican lawmakers and most didn't appear to lose primarily due to pressure from far-right candidates and groups. 

In fact, Milford Rep. Curt Nisly and Indianapolis Rep. John Jacob, who are routinely praised by the conservative Liberty Defense PAC and similar groups, were defeated by Republican establishment-backed candidates. Those two races could be construed as Liberty Defense PAC's biggest losses of the primary election.

Jacob was bested by Julie McGuire, who unofficial results show clobbered the freshman lawmaker by 22 percentage points in House District 93. Meanwhile fellow Rep. Craig Snow, R-Warsaw, beat Nisly by 46 percentage points unofficial results show in House District 22. 

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Both Snow and McGuire got hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of help from the financial wing of the House Republicans.

Both Jacob and Nisly routinely butted heads with leadership with their no-compromise attitude and attempts to insert bans on any abortions within unrelated bills. And both served as inspiration for some of the 26 Statehouse outsiders who challenged incumbents in the Statehouse.

Jacob too once made what the House Speaker Todd Huston called unacceptable social media posts about Catholics and Muslims. 

Meanwhile, Rep. John Young, R-Franklin, was ousted by Rob Greene in House District 47. But Greene, whose top priority was helping families with children with special needs according to the Daily Journal, wasn't the candidate of choice for those far-right groups, so the dynamics of that race might have been different.

The remaining two lawmakers ousted were running against other Republican lawmakers in part due to redistricting.

Rep. Jeff Ellington, a Bloomfield Republican, lost to Rep. Bruce Borders, R-Jasonville.

Borders was a favorite among some of the conservative groups such as Liberty Defense PAC and the American Family Association of Indiana, but he also was an outlier. Borders is a longtime lawmaker and a leader within the House Republicans. 

Likewise, Sen. Kevin Boehnlein, R- Greenville, lost to Sen. Gary Byrne, R-Byrneville. Both were new lawmakers, each having been chosen by a caucus to fill the remainder of retiring lawmakers' positions.

Why far right didn't win more races

House Republicans poured money of their own into the primaries. 

As of April 8, the House Republican Campaign Committee, led by House Speaker Todd Huston and other Republican leadership, had spent more than $1.2 million this year alone in order to back candidates in the primary election. 

That's more than three times what the committee has spent during the same time frame in any primary election cycle this century. Meanwhile, the Liberty Defense PAC had just under $100,000 at their disposal. The campaign committee also had the resources to spend another $2.1 million following the April reporting deadline. 


That money made establishment-backed candidates challenging to beat. Eighteen of the 26 candidates endorsed by the Liberty Defense PAC ran against incumbents. Only two won: Sweet and Borders, the latter of whom was himself an incumbent.

House Republican leadership also appeared to focus their attention on districts that far-right candidates unwilling to mesh with leadership has won in years past. In House District 93, for example, McGuire raised $560,000 Between January and April 8, while Jacob raised a small portion of that: $37,000. Most of McGuire's cash came from the campaign committee. 

"There does come a point where money can overcome an awful lot of other stuff," said Andy Downs, a political science professor at Purdue University Fort Wayne. 

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Wilson also pointed out that those endorsed by the Liberty Defense PAC also likely didn't have the organizational infrastructure like lawmakers or others supported by the party apparatus did. 

It was easier for Liberty Defense PAC candidates to win in races featuring no incumbent. In House District 25 in Boone and Hendricks counties, Becky Cash won, beating out both Kent Abernathy and Matthew Whetstone, a former lawmaker.

Whetstone, however, had baggage entering the race, due to his ties to a troubled casino, so that could have factored in to some voters' decisions. Abernathy is the former head of the BMV. 

Likewise, in House District 32 primarily in Hamilton County Fred Glyn, the candidate backed by far-right groups, was still in the lead by six votes as of Thursday, though the race remained too close to call. 

What happened in Leonard's district

Leonard's district was the biggest upset of the night, and one example where the far-right candidate secured a victory by knocking out an incumbent. As of April 8, Leonard had raised nearly $217,000, compared to Sweet's $23,000.

Still, Sweet beat him by more than 13 percentage points. Huntington County GOP Chair Marla Foster attributed the results in part to low voter turnout. 

Final numbers weren't yet available for the entire state as of Thursday, but there was evidence it was low even for a midterm election in multiple counties. Voter turnout in Marion, Hamilton and Johnson counties, for example, was much lower than in 2018 primary based on unofficial data.

"When you've got turnout that only produces basically around 7,000 votes between the two counties making decisions for the rest of those counties," Foster said, "that's pretty disproportionate."

Foster also thought that facts being misconstrued about Leonard's voting history, such as his stance on abortion, played a role. 

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While Indiana Right to Life endorsed Leonard due to his track record of supporting anti-abortion measures, Sweet attacked his failure to push for a total ban on abortion. 

Sweet, and most of the Liberty Defense Pac candidates ran negative campaigns against the establishment campaigns.

It also seems likely she outworked him in terms of knocking on doors. 

Downs pointed to Sweet's ground game, or her dedication to going door to door to talk to voters, as a likely reason she won. Leonard ran TV ads, he said, but that likely wasn't a targeted enough of an approach in the primary. 

"The low turnout meant that people who had fewer resources weren't at the same big disadvantage as in an election with higher turnout," Downs. "The ground game worked in part because they could communicate with every voter."

There were other cases where the candidate who raised less money still pulled out a victory. 

In open House District 25, Whetstone lost to Cash and Abernathy, despite receiving $148,000 as of April 8, compared to the roughly $20,000 each of the other two raised. Likewise, in open Senate District 14 in northeast Indiana, Ron Turpin outraised his opponents, but still lost to Tyler Johnson. 

These candidates will all advance to the general election in November, but in part because of the way district lines have been drawn over the decades, most general election races won't be as competitive as the primaries. 

The general election is Nov. 8.

Call IndyStar reporter Kaitlin Lange at 317-432-9270 or email her at kaitlin.lange@indystar.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kaitlin_lange.