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Indiana GOP lawmakers resisting many hard-right challengers

The elephant, a symbol of the Republican Party, on in a rug in the lobby of the Republican Party's headquarters in Washington. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Frustrated conservatives wanting to push the Republican-controlled Indiana Legislature further to the right are trying to unseat several GOP lawmakers in Tuesday’s primary.

Roughly two dozen so-called liberty candidates are in Republican legislative races across the state, with their targets including several top-ranking members of the GOP-dominated House.

Those challengers argue the Legislature hasn’t been aggressive enough in attempting to ban abortion, enhancing gun rights and overturning COVID-19 restrictions that were ordered by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Republican legislative leaders argue the “no compromise” stances adopted by many challengers aren’t practical and tout the state’s low taxes and unemployment and broad private school voucher program among its conservative successes.

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.

The challengers say they are tapping into a deep resentment among voters — and even winning a few seats could nudge the Legislature further to the right.

Because of early voting and the timing of the leak of a draft opinion late Monday that suggested Roe v. Wade could be overturned, it was unclear how it would impact the primary. Indiana lawmakers held off in this year’s session pursuing major anti-abortion action as they awaited a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Those lawmakers might ask Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb to call the Legislature into a special session so they could take action without having to wait until 2023.

Indiana law generally prohibits abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with 99% of abortions in the state occurring at 13 weeks or earlier, according to a state Health Department report.

The House GOP campaign operation has given over $1 million to candidates for the primary — including those trying to unseat Republican Reps. Curt Nisly of Milford and John Jacob of Indianapolis, both heroes of the “liberty candidate” challengers for proposals blocked by legislative leaders, including a total abortion ban and seeking to void all state COVID-19 restrictions as far back as late 2020.

Meanwhile, the Liberty Defense PAC, which has worked to rally support for its endorsed candidates, had raised a total of about $95,000 by the end of March.

“Some of our incumbents are facing very, very engaged opponents,” Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said. “You can’t take any chances. Our team has been doing everything they need to do, knocking on doors, lots of voter contacts, those types of things. Nobody should take it lightly.”

Some challengers say their movement grew from protests against COVID-19 shutdowns and complaints that GOP legislators didn’t take action to end Holcomb’s executive orders, including a mask mandate.

Brittany Carroll, a family law attorney from Greenwood running against Rep. Peggy Mayfield of Martinsville, said too many government officials, from Holcomb to local school board members, had ignored concerns from the public and favored monied interests. She and other challengers said they weren’t deterred by heavy spending to defeat them.

“Trying to buy these seats for certain people, that’s not government of the people, that’s government of the Statehouse,” Carroll said.

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.

But victories by Nisly and Jacob and some of their allies could prove a major thorn for Huston and other legislative leaders, said Mike Murphy, a former Republican legislator from Indianapolis and past Marion County GOP chair.

“Then Huston has to deal with them, he can’t just censor them or say they’re inappropriate,” Murphy said. “He’s actually got to negotiate.”