INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill’s bid for reelection was scuttled Friday as he lost the Republican nomination following a monthlong suspension of his law license over allegations that he groped a state lawmaker and three other women during a party.
Former U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita prevailed in mail-in voting by state convention delegates after a campaign among party activists that centered on whether the allegations against Hill left him vulnerable to defeat in the November election. Rokita defeated Hill with 52% of the vote in a third round of voting after two lesser-known candidates were eliminated in earlier rounds, state GOP Chairman Kyle Hupfer said.
Rokita said he entered the race because Hill had a history of “bad judgment, bad choices and not taking responsibilities” marring his time as state government’s top lawyer. Rokita, who is known as a contentious conservative, is looking to make a political comeback after running unsuccessfully for governor in 2016 and a U.S. Senate seat two years ago.
Hill had been seen as a rising African American star among Republicans and worked to build support among social conservatives, touting himself as an anti-abortion and tough-on-crime crusader and making appearances on Fox News to discuss topics such as San Francisco’s troubles with homelessness.
But Hill faced opposition from Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and other top state GOP leaders. Holcomb called on Hill to resign over the allegations that he drunkenly groped a state lawmaker and three other women during March 2018 party marking the end of that year’s legislative session.
Hill, 59, has denied wrongdoing, and a special prosecutor declined to file criminal charges against him. But the state Supreme Court suspended his law license for 30 days, ruling unanimously in May that the state’s attorney disciplinary commission “proved by clear and convincing evidence that (Hill) committed the criminal act of battery.”
Holcomb declined to endorse any Republican candidate for attorney general. He issued only a tepid comment of congrats for Rokita following the nomination announcement.
Former Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel won the Democratic nomination a race that the party is targeting in hopes of breaking the current hold Republicans have on all statewide elected offices.
Weinzapfel said in a statement following the announcement of his ballot contender that his governing philosophies, priorities and values “couldn’t be more different” from Rokita’s. His campaign is now gearing up for November, Weinzapfel told The Associated Press, with healthcare continuing to be a primary platform issue. His stance on the Affordable Care Act is largely what he says will set him apart from Rokita and garner support from voters.
“Frankly, it doesn’t matter who the Republican nominee is because they are on the wrong side of the issues,” Weinzapfel said. “The delegate convention that just concluded appears to me to have been a very divisive battle. But the Democrats are united. We see this as our opportunity to win a statewide office and bring Democratic values and different voices within state government.”
Republicans, however, are ready to deliver victories “up and down the ballot in November,” Hupfer, the state GOP chiarman, said in a brief congratulatory statement to the Rokita campaign.
Following the announcement, Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody responded in a statement, saying Hoosiers “can’t trust” the Republican nominee. Zody cited “lucrative state contracts” Rokita made to campaign contributors while Secretary of State, as well as his stances on health care.
“Todd Rokita is the poster boy for pay to play politics and underscores why national political prognosticators have moved this to a ‘toss-up’ race,” Zody said. “Bottom line: this office is a top pick up opportunity for Hoosier Democrats.”
Weinzapfel has also criticized the GOP candidates for supporting Hill’s participation with other Republican attorneys general in the lawsuit against “Obamacare,” but Rokita’s nomination likely lessens the potential campaign impact of the groping allegations.
Democratic Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon testified during an October attorney disciplinary hearing that Hill, smelling of alcohol and with glassy eyes, was holding a drink in his right hand and put his left hand on her shoulder, then slid his hand down her dress to clench her buttocks. “A squeeze, a firm grasp,” she said.
Three female legislative staffers - ages 23 to 26 at the time - testified that Hill inappropriately touched their backs or buttocks and made unwelcome sexual comments during the party.
Hill did not immediately return a request for comment after Friday’s nomination announcement.
Rokita won statewide elections as Indiana secretary of state in 2002 and 2006 before he held a central Indiana congressional seat for eight years through 2018. He champions his “solid history” of defending gun rights and religious freedom, as well as his previous work while secretary of state to implement the nation’s first photo voter identification law.
“With work as Secretary of State I have a record Hoosiers can trust,” Rokita said in a statement after his nomination win. “As our next Attorney General I will help ensure that we always protect Hoosiers with pre-existing healthcare conditions, that we operate the AG’s office efficiently and protect taxpayer dollars, that we uphold the rule of law to protect our communities from crime, that we support a growing economy, and we safeguard our Constitutional freedoms along with common sense, conservative values.”
Rokita has faced several controversies, including allegations that his congressional staffers often felt obligated to do political work to help his campaigns. And a 2018 Associated Press analysis of state and congressional spending records revealed that Rokita had spent more than $3 million in public money on ad campaigns that often coincided with his bids for office.
Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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