COLUMBUS, Ind. — With 11 flavors of coffee on tap behind him, Rep. Todd Young, the ex-Marine-turned-lawyer, held court in Gramz Bakery and Cafe with local business and party leaders here last week. “Don’t you have any Folger’s?” he cracked.
Seventy miles northwest, fellow Indiana GOP Rep. Marlin Stutzman told about 50 people at Soul Harvest Church in Cloverdale about shoveling manure: “I thought, Lord, what am I going to do with this experience?” He did what any self-described anti-establishment candidate would do and compared it to working in Washington, D.C.
Voting in Indiana’s May 3 primary is already under way, and the Senate primary is turning into a battle between two factions of the party that will play out the same day Hoosiers cast presidential ballots. Although this primary shares many elements with the top-of-the-ticket, the Senate candidates are in some ways more complicated than the establishment-versus-outsider dichotomy that’s animated so much of the GOP presidential race.
Both GOP congressmen have suggested, while holding small campaign events across the state in early April, that anticipated higher turnout from the presidential election will boost their candidacies.
For Young, who has the support of the Chamber of Commerce and Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund, that means speaking in broad strokes about the race and deflecting questions about Donald Trump. “I haven’t given great thought to the presidential race,” he said in an interview. “Republicans will go ahead and cast their vote. Whoever they want our nominee to be, that process will take care of itself.”
For Stutzman, a Freedom Caucus member who voted against John Boehner for speaker and is backed by the anti-Trump Club for Growth, the presidential race is a chance to bolster his outsider credibility. Last month, his campaign sent a fundraising email accusing Young of attending an anti-Trump meeting in Florida. The Young campaign has said he was at a Florida conference to discuss policy issues, not the presidential race.
Both Young and Stutzman were elected to the House in 2010, Young from the south central 9th District and Stutzman from the more conservative 3rd District in the northeast corner of the state.
Wearing a dark blue suit, Young worked the coffee shop crowd, most of whom were old political allies. Sitting down to talk one-on-one with one voter, he rolled up his sleeves, leaned into the conversation, and tore off a piece of newspaper to jot down a note.
Young’s ambition is palpable, and his answers sometimes scripted. At one point, he interrupted a conversation with a constituent to top off his goodbye to another man who was just leaving. “Wait,” he told his conversation partner, “I just remembered his wife’s name!”
Young has been raising more money — he brags about his fundraising records — and has air cover from outside groups. Stutzman is not currently advertising on TV, but in an interview late last week said he expects the campaign to go back on air soon.
Since endorsing him last summer, the Club hasn’t been publicly fundraising for Stutzman , although Club President David McIntosh told CNN recently help is on its way. By dismissing well-respected consultants last fall, Stutzman renewed fears that he’d become another Richard Mourdock, the former state Treasurer who knocked off Richard Lugar in 2012 and went on to lose the GOP a seat with his comments about rape .
Stutzman doesn’t agree. “With the Trump phenomenon and the way the presidential primary was going, I felt it was more important to have someone on the ground knowing what’s going on here,” he said in defense of his decision to re-hire Indiana-based Mark It Red, which he has used in previous races.
Young sells himself as the one to help Republicans hold the Senate. “We can’t get it wrong,” he told his coffee klatch.
An unexpected turn
Given Young’s financial advantage, the conventional wisdom throughout the primary was that he would have the upper hand. But no one saw Feb. 9 coming.
First, the Indiana Democratic Party, and then Stutzman, challenged Young’s place on the ballot in the 1st District. Independent reviews of Young’s ballot signatures confirmed he was teetering close to the required 500. A tied vote on the state Election Commission swung in Young’s favor and he got to stay on the ballot .
Young dismissed the episode as a “political act” spearheaded by Democrats and said he was most disappointed by Stutzman. Sen. Dan Coats, whose seat they’re vying for, called Stutzman’s challenge “unseemly” and threatened to rethink his neutrality in the race.
Last week, Young refused to acknowledge any fault of his own campaign, and offered a bizarre analogy to receiving a ticket for going the speed limit.
“It’s akin, I suppose, to someone being clocked in at 55 miles an hour, or 54 miles an hour, in a 55 miles an hour speed limit, and brought to court for a speeding violation. Would you ask the person, don’t you regret not going 45 miles an hour just to play it safe? No!” he said emphatically. “I followed the law.”
Stutzman isn’t pursuing the issue anymore, and is instead going after Young — only referring to him as “my opponent” — as McConnell’s pick. “Washington isn’t excited about me winning,” he told the late afternoon church crowd in Cloverdale, about 45 minutes southwest of Indianapolis.
That message was resonating. “There’s no finer endorsement for you than Mitch McConnell being for the other guy,” one man in the audience piped up.
But Stutzman isn’t all outsider. He initially sought the Chamber of Commerce’s backing — which Young is all too eager to point out. “Being a business guy, it seemed natural that I would approach them,” Stutzman said. “Their agenda has obviously changed. They no longer represent mainstream Indiana.”
Before handing the microphone off to Future Farmers of America volunteers to advertise their plant sale, Stutzman blasted Washington for being surrounded by some of the wealthiest counties in the country. He didn’t tell the crowd that he owns a home in Alexandria, Va., and that his wife co-owns a bridal boutique 50 miles down the road in Fredericksburg.
“We’ve been very open about that,” Stutzman said of his decision to be close to his family. Indeed, the different lifestyle choices of Indiana’s members — Young keeps his family in the district — are long disputed in the delegation .
Looking to November
Whoever wins the primary will face Hill, whom Young defeated in the 2010 GOP wave. Democrats would rather face Stutzman , especially if he has a Mourdock moment, but Hill wouldn’t mind a rematch. “There is part of me that would love to run against [Young] again,” Hill said in an interview in Indianapolis.
Hill, a Blue Dog Democrat, is ready to tie either Republican to the top of the ticket. “I’ve got mixed emotions about what’s going on in this country,” Hill said. “I think if Trump’s the nominee, politically speaking, there’s an advantage for me. But you know, I think he’s an embarrassment to the United States.”
Hill, however, admits that he hasn’t raised as much money as he’d like. “Well money’s not everything,” he added. “If that were the case, Ross Perot would be president of the United States, right?”
That’s a familiar refrain among underdogs these days. “If money won elections,” Stutzman said, “Jeb Bush would be our nominee.”