INDIANAPOLIS — Competition seems to agree with Todd Young.
He and I sit in a studio talking over the air about his campaign to become Indiana’s next U.S. senator. Young, a Republican congressman representing southern Indiana, is running to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana.
Until last month, Young seemed to be on a glide path to victory. He’d prevailed over tea party darling and fellow U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Indiana, in a rugged primary and was running against former U.S. Rep. Baron Hill, D-Indiana, in the general election. Young already had faced and defeated Hill once in a congressional race, and Hill was struggling to raise money for the Senate race.
But then Hill dropped out and Evan Bayh – a former governor, a former U.S. senator and the 800-pound gorilla of the Indiana Democratic Party – stepped in. Bayh had huge name recognition and nearly $10 million in leftover campaign contributions at his disposal.
With that, Young went from being an overwhelming favorite to a slight underdog.
I ask if Young saw the change coming.
He says he had no inkling Bayh was going to get into the race, but he was ready nonetheless.
“When I originally contemplated running for this seat, there are a number of different contingencies that you bake into a decision like this, right?” Young says. “I’m a planner. And I thought it is possible that Evan Bayh, who’s been living in Washington and sitting on roughly $10 million in campaign cash for a decade as he works out there lobbying, that he might at some point re-enter the fray and might in fact run for this race …. And so I was prepared to run against Evan Bayh over a year ago.”
Young’s response shows how the stiffer competition has sharpened his reflexes. He takes a simple question – did you see this coming? – and, with a couple of deft phrases, uses the response to hit Bayh in a couple of tender spots, the fact that he’s been lobbying and has spent quite a bit of time away from Indiana.
That’s the way it goes for the hour we talk.
I ask him several times about controversial Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – who has public approval ratings that are lower than some natural disasters. Young responds by saying he supports “the Republican nominee” and then, each time, pivots to attack Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
At no time does Trump’s name ever cross Young’s lips.
So there’s no sound bite linking him with an unpopular (and unpredictable) candidate at the top of the ticket.
Young’s tone as he talks is low-key, matter-of-fact. He scores his points – noting, for example, that it’s been a long time since Bayh has faced tough competition – without seeming strident.
Questions roll in from listeners.
Young answers them in ways that allow him to reach out to moderate or swing voters – he uses the word “bipartisan” almost as if it were a form of punctuation – while at the same time reassuring conservative voters that he hasn’t abandoned them.
When he gets questions about health care, he throws some red meat to his conservative base by saying the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”) should be abolished, but then ticks off several ways in which it in effect might be replicated. And he notes that Bayh cast the deciding vote to make “Obamacare” law.
Still more red meat for the base.
Young deals with questions about Social Security – he once called it “a Ponzi scheme” – by saying his real focus is on keeping it solvent. He attacks earlier practices of raiding Social Security funds to pay for other government programs. And then he says Bayh voted to raise taxes on Social Security benefits for seniors several times.
All in all, Young’s performance is a deft bit of tightrope-walking.
He manages to clasp hands with conservatives at the same time that he’s reaching out to moderates and independents without ever slipping or stumbling.
Before we went on the air, I asked Young how he felt about the changed nature of the campaign.
He said he’s actually enjoying the race more now that the competition is stiffer.
“Who wants to win a U.S. Senate race in a cake walk?” he says with a laugh.
I think he means it.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.