South Bend, Ind. — At a time when many Republicans find little to be optimistic about, some hope that the Indiana Senate race will be a bright spot.
Republican representative Todd Young has made significant progress closing a more than 20-point deficit in the polls behind former senator and governor Evan Bayh in the race to replace retiring Republican senator Dan Coats. Bayh’s eleventh hour entry into the race made him the instant front-runner, but the two most recent public surveys put him ahead by just six points. Though that’s still quite a gap, Republicans here profess confidence that the race is trending their way. While the national environment threatens to drag down GOP Senate candidates elsewhere, this race has been relatively insulated from the turmoil at the top of the ticket, fueling Republican hopes that Young can pull off an unexpected victory.
“I feel really good about the race. I feel as though we continue to get momentum,” Young says in an interview here. The 44-year-old Marine Corps veteran, his hair still wet on a chilly Saturday morning, is appearing with Representative Jackie Walorski and a number of local officials to urge a small crowd to turn out and vote. He is a less practiced politician than his Democratic opponent. He rolls a cough drop around in his mouth during our interview, and answers questions haltingly at times, carefully choosing his words to hit his marks. Occasionally, he even lapses into his stump speech. But his lack of political polish dovetails with his attempts to paint Bayh’s political experience as a flaw in a year when voters have gravitated toward outsiders.
“[Bayh] represents the past, he represents the stale politics and failed ideas of the Washington, D.C. political class. Clearly he has a well-known name and he’s running on his dad’s name. I’m running on my dad’s values,” Young says, using a line he repeats several times at campaign events.
When Bayh made his unexpected entry into the Senate race in July, replacing the winner of the Democratic primary as the party’s nominee, things looked grim for Republicans. He had a $10 million war chest and near-universal name recognition in Indiana, where his father was a popular senator and where he had served as both senator and governor. Young, having expected to cruise to victory in the red-leaning state, suddenly found himself with little money, little name-ID, and very little time to catch up.
But as the has campaign trudged on, Bayh has been damaged by a slow procession of stories that question his Indiana residency, his dealings with companies he was responsible for regulating as a senator, and the amount of time he now spends in the state he hopes to once again represent. The race now hinges on whether Republicans can overcome the goodwill Bayh and his family have built up during their decades in state office.
“As Evan Bayh has pointed out, he was running for office and serving in office, he says, when I was in high school,” Young says. “He’s actually incorrect, I was in junior high. I think he intended it as an insult to me, but I think a lot of people my age and younger don’t remember the decades-old reputation of Evan Bayh.”
“I’ve been a Hoosier since the day I was born, and I’ll be a Hoosier ’til the day I die, and I think the people of Indiana understand that,” Bayh says in an interview at a barbecue joint in Indianapolis.
GOP officials talked a big game when Bayh got in the race, insisting, even when he sported a double-digit lead in polls and a $9 million cash advantage, that Republicans would keep the seat. To do that, however, Young would need a lot of outside help, and it was not at all clear that outside groups would be willing to commit the resources to keep him in the game. With so many other seats in danger across the country, if Young continued to trail, strategists believed, Republicans might choose to focus their limited funds elsewhere.
Instead, they barraged Bayh with negative ads and a steady stream of opposition research. In an interview, Bayh says the contours of the race are “what we expected,” calling it “probably a five-point race.” Republicans say their polls have it tied.
As in many other races around the country, the question is whether Young can maintain his momentum in the face of turmoil at the top of the ticket.
But as in many other races around the country, the question is whether Young can maintain his momentum in the face of turmoil at the top of the ticket. So far, the contest between Bayh and Young has seemed largely insulated from the presidential campaign. Indiana is a red state, and Donald Trump is expected to win it. Though Young continues to support his party’s nominee, Bayh, unlike many other Democratic Senate hopefuls, has little incentive to use Trump as a cudgel, because he will likely need some Trump voters to split their tickets if he is to win.
But that could change in the wake of a rough few weeks for Republican presidential hopes, starting with the release of a video in which Trump spoke about making predatory advances toward women. With polls showing Trump losing ground even in GOP strongholds, Indiana Republicans are no longer sure of the presidential race’s impact on Young’s chances. The Clinton campaign, seeing an opening, is putting money into the state.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that Trump has become He Who Must Not Be Named among Republicans in the state. At an Indiana GOP dinner on Thursday to honor retiring Senator Dan Coats and boost Young as his replacement, not a single speaker mentioned Trump. Lieutenant Governor Eric Holcomb, the party’s nominee for governor, spent several minutes excoriating Hillary Clinton in his speech to the dinner before arriving at the point: “That is why, ladies and gentleman, we must elect our own Governor Mike Pence as the next Vice President of the United States of America.” The dinner was no anomaly, either. Though Republican elected officials in Indiana, including Young, continue to back Trump, in three days of interviews and campaign events, Republican candidates and elected officials rarely breathed his name.
Young is even positioning himself for a Trump loss, making the argument that a Republican Senate is necessary to check the next president, particularly when it comes to Supreme Court nominees. “The entire U.S. Senate and composition of the U.S. Supreme Court could well depend upon the success of a campaign that happens to have my name on it,” he said in South Bend.
Many Republicans hope that Indiana voters will treat the state’s highly competitive Senate and gubernatorial races as separate from the presidential campaign. “I think Hoosiers are incredibly wise when it comes to cutting through a lot of rhetoric and really looking at individual candidates,” says Representative Jackie Walorski, using a line that gets repeated over and over again by Indiana Republicans when they’re asked about the impact of the top of the ticket. But as with other states, if Trump sinks too far, it could make it hard for a narrowly trailing candidate such as Young to continue closing the gap.
Given the cycle’s extreme volatility, Indiana Republicans have taken a keen interest in voter turnout. “I think the one factor out there that has a big question mark on it is that this potentially could be a race that surprises everyone in terms of who turns out,” says Coats in a phone interview. Indiana Republican National Committeeman John Hammond worries that some people might “bullet vote,” punching the button for Trump and ignoring all the other races on the ballot. Other state party insiders fear disillusionment with Trump could keep some Republican voters home, hurting GOP candidates further down the ballot.
“It’s not just me that’s on the ballot,” Young exhorted the crowd in South Bend. “It’s not just Jackie Walorski that’s on the ballot. It’s not just your state-level officials and your local officials whose names are on the ballot. In each and every election, it’s your rights, it’s your freedoms, it’s your interests that are on the ballot. Remind your neighbors about that. Remind like-minded individuals. Remind your family members who you kind of wonder whether or not they’re really going to vote or not.”
Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial publication.
— Alexis Levinson is National Review’s senior political reporter.