Greensburg, Ind. — Palace intrigue in Washington, D.C. has created a small but interesting wrinkle in the Republican Senate primary in Indiana. Rumors of a retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan have some hoping that Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., would set aside his Senate campaign and try to pick up the speaker’s gavel.
The appeal is immediate and obvious. Messer is popular; he was elected congressional class president for the 113th Congress. Messer is policy sharp; he has made education reform his hobbyhorse. Messer is chairman of the Republican policy committee; he is the fifth ranking member of the GOP conference.
Combine those attributes and Messer looks like an ideal speaker candidate. Some, like former Rep. Mark Souder, have dubbed him “a plausible compromise candidate.”
What’s more, Messer would have an opportunity to restore Indiana’s reputation in the speaker’s balcony. The last Indiana speaker was Democrat Rep. Michael Crawford Kerr, who vehemently opposed Republican reconstruction and who died unceremoniously of consumption in office in 1876. In the decade prior, Republican Hoosier Schuyler Colfax had served in the speaker's chair as a vocal opponent of slavery, but after becoming vice president he was later embroiled in the Credit Mobilier bribery scandal and left public life for good.
But Messer isn’t interested in the speaker's seat. “I am not running for speaker,” he tells me definitively over a hearty breakfast at a local diner. “I’m running for U.S. Senate.”
Three significant things are immediately clear from that short statement.
First, political opportunism isn’t driving Messer’s campaign. When GOP Sen. Dan Coates retired in 2016, as Messer allies are quick to point out, the congressman didn’t jump into the race. He isn’t about to do the same for an off-chance at becoming the speaker.
Second, the race won’t narrow anytime soon. With four months to go before the primary, the contest has been dominated by two other big names besides Messer: Rep. Todd Rokita, and businessman Mike Braun. Hopes that Messer would drop out amount to little more than the competition’s wishful thinking.
Third, Indiana will have to wait a little longer before another of its sons occupies the top legislative job.