Greensburg, Ind. — Without even glancing at the greasy menu, Luke Messer orders a plate of grits, two eggs (one over easy another over hard), a heaping side of bacon, and coffee (black). Then while wolfing down that complete breakfast and draining several refills, Messer launches into a roughly 15-minute introduction of his little hometown.
It was mostly autobiographical, sort of historical, and maybe a bit over the top. It’s just that the Indiana Republican running for Senate really wants everyone to know he lives here.
From our table by the big window at the front of Stories’ Restaurant in downtown Greensburg, Messer motions to the Decatur County Courthouse and points out the mulberry tree growing out of the roof of its tower. He remembers how the local American Legion sent him to Hoosier Boy’s State in 1986. And he proudly reminisces about playing middle linebacker in high school before joining the team about an hour southeast at Wabash University. In sum, he says, “my life story is 100 percent Hoosier.”
Messer is at once proud of Greensburg and cognizant of the consequences of his political geography. That’s because the conservative lives at two homes — one in Indiana and another in McLean, Va.
“Luke Messer doesn’t live in the state — I do,” GOP challenger Rep. Todd Rokita first said in July, kicking off what has become a sustained attack on the dual residency of his House colleague turned primary competitor. “I’m accountable to voters and taxpayers here. I live among them every week.”
A sense of place is a powerful political force in Indiana. Anyone who doubts that isn’t from here and doesn’t remember recent history. When Evan Bayh tried to reclaim his Senate seat in 2016, voters slapped down the Democrat because the Hoosier State wasn’t really his home. Bayh had been bouncing between a beltway property, a sunny Florida beach house, and squat Indianapolis condo. He lost by 10 points.
Messer fears the same fate, but has a more plausible story. A father of three and the fifth-ranking House Republican as chair of the Policy and Steering Committee, he is long on responsibilities and short on time. “I am proud to serve our state, but being a dad comes first,” Messer said in a November statement defending his dual homestead. “My opponents think that’s gonna cost me this election. If it did, I’d never regret it.”
And when this reporter asked that Republican the same question three days after Christmas, Messer sort of rolls his eyes as if to say, "Haven’t we dealt with all this already?"
“Look man, I grew up in Greensburg with a single-parent family,” he says. “I wrote a children’s book about Indiana called Hoosier Heart and my wife illustrated it. Hoosiers are smart and they’ll see through all that.”
If a tour of the local fare is representative, the congressman isn’t wrong. Standing behind the lunch counter, restaurant owner Lewis Storie says Messer “is a good guy” who “was a regular customer before he got big, rich, and famous.” Lisa Sizemore, the owner of the Pizza King across town, said the same: "He and his brother come by all the time.”
Regardless, the residency issue will no doubt dog Messer until the May 8 primary. “I think that the negativity has helped our campaign,” he said, spinning the attacks. “We’ve gained a lot of momentum, because people are tired of the negative. They don’t want to see Republicans attacking Republicans.” With that, Messer finishes his breakfast, pushes aside his dishes, and starts talking policy.