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Indiana House primary featuring anti-Israel ex-congressman coming down to the wire

John Hostettler, a former congressman opposed by AIPAC and the Republican Jewish Coalition, faces state Sen. Mark Messmer in Tuesday’s congressional primary

Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty Images

Rep. John Hostettler (R-IN)

Tuesday’s Republican primary in Indiana’s 8th Congressional District is likely to come down to the wire, after pro-Israel groups injected millions in outside spending in a bid to block a former congressman — who voted repeatedly against Israel — from returning to Washington.

The race is largely down to former GOP Rep. John Hostettler and state Sen. Mark Messmer, according to political operatives tracking the race. Hostettler, while in office in the late 1990s and early 2000s, voted repeatedly against funding for Israel and other pro-Israel legislation, and claimed in a self-published book that a primary motivation — driven by prominent Jewish officials — for the Iraq War was protecting Israel.

The AIPAC-linked United Democracy Project has spent close to $1.3 million on advertisements in the race, while the Republican Jewish Coalition’s super PAC has spent nearly $1 million. AIPAC and RJC have both endorsed Messmer. Other outside groups have pumped additional millions into the race, mostly to Messmer’s benefit, although Hostettler has seen some outside help.

After Jewish Insider covered the initial spending against Hostettler and his record, Hostettler posted on his Facebook page implying that a “cabal” is conspiring against him.

He also slammed the Anti-Defamation League as the “Anti-Defamation of Leo Frank,” whose lynching in 1915 prompted the ADL’s creation, and referred to its former national director, Abraham Foxman, as “Rabbi Foxman.” (Foxman is not a rabbi.)

Antisemites continue to insist that Frank, who was posthumously pardoned and widely believed to have been unjustly prosecuted and convicted of rape and murder due to antisemitism, is guilty.

Cam Savage, an Indiana Republican political strategist unaffiliated with any campaign, said that Messmer’s campaign generally feels comfortable about where it stands going into primary day, but the election is likely to be close. There has not been public polling on the race.

“I hear people in both camps say they expect it to be close,” Savage told JI. “If anyone tells you they know, they’re probably lying.”

Another individual familiar with the race echoed the view that Messmer is in a strong position, but said it will be a race to the finish line on Tuesday.

Outside spending, as well as the Messmer campaign’s own substantial fundraising — Messmer raised $763,000 to Hostettler’s $40,000 as of the end of last month — has helped fuel Messmer, Savage told JI. But Hostettler remains well-known in the district, even years after having left public office.

“I think [Messmer’s team] would acknowledge that he’s been a tougher opponent than they probably would have anticipated,” Savage said.

Hostettler, Savage explained, consistently faced competitive reelection races when he was in office, meaning that he was “very well-defined and very well-branded among the primary electorate” in a district that’s largely the same as when he was last elected. Savage added that the primary voting base tends to be older and will be more likely to remember Hostettler’s time in office.

Hostettler’s son also represents a portion of the congressional district in the Indiana state House.

Messmer, though, is a popular state Senate incumbent, giving him a solid base of support inside the district, which includes Evanston and Terre Haute. Whether the spate of advertising is sufficient to help Messer expand his voting bloc outside of his Senate district will be a key deciding factor in determining the election, Savage said.

The primary is largely a race to the right, according to Savage, and Hostettler established himself in office as someone often willing to buck the rest of his party — a “private Freedom Caucus before the Freedom Caucus was ever dreamt up,” but with a more “likable, charming, good natured” attitude. 

Much of the advertising from UDP has focused on Hostettler’s views on Israel, an issue that Savage said is more salient now than it might have been months ago for the primary electorate, but would still probably not be a top issue for voters in the district.

Local endorsements aren’t shaping up to be a major factor in the race, according to Savage, but he noted that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) — who is well-known inside the district, coming from an adjoining state — has shot TV advertisements touting his support for Hostettler. 

Hostettler is also receiving outside support from the American Leadership PAC, a group affiliated with Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), a former Hostettler staffer.

A Banks spokesperson said that he has not issued an endorsement in the race and “thinks there are a lot of good Republicans running and [is] looking forward to working with whoever wins after 2024.”

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