Donald Trump won big in Indiana Tuesday, but it wasn’t a good night for another anti-establishment candidate in a down-ballot Senate race.
Two Hoosier congressmen sought the GOP nod for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Dan Coats.
Marlin Stutzman sold himself as a Hoosier farmer who, when he wasn’t
hoisting bags of cracked corn
over his shoulder, was
in Washington. He faced
Todd Young, an attorney who relied on the familiar refrain of a Marine taking on Washington — while benefiting from establishment backing.
Young defeated Stutzman by 34 points, with 98 percent of precincts reporting.
That victory may say less about the waning appeal of outsider candidates down-ballot and much more about how Young successfully undermined Stutzman’s anti-establishment message.
[Related: In Indiana, a Marine and a Farmer Duel for Future of GOP]
Stutzman, who represents the state’s most conservative district, was supposed to be the candidate who
tapped into Trump’s outsider appeal.
Indeed, even while being backed by the anti-Trump Club for Growth, he tried to accuse Young of attending a stop-Trump confab earlier this year, as if beckoning to Trump sympathizers to join his side.
[Related: Indiana Will Test Club for Growth’s Evolution]
But throughout the campaign, Young, who represents the south-central Indiana 9th District, hammered away at inconsistencies in Stutzman’s record. He tried to cast him as a “career politician” unpalatable to Trump supporters.
On its “Me First Marlin” website, the Young campaign criticized Stutzman for having held elected office since he was 26. (For his part, Young also started in politics at a young age, working as an aide in Washington to former Sen. Dick Lugar).
Attacks against Stutzman for accepting subsidies and moving his family to the Washington suburbs — a longstanding source of contention in the delegation — also played into Young’s narrative, as did several late-in-the-game reports about Stutzman’s wayward spending.
An AP investigation reported that Stutzman dipped into his campaign coffers to pay for a family vacation. Stutzman’s campaign spent three times as much on hotels, flights and meals as Young’s did since they were both elected in 2010, according to the AP.
Another AP story found that Stutzman paid his brother-in-law, a car salesman, $170,000 to manage the finances of his campaign. And Stutzman failed to report a flight he took on the private plane of a supporter, according to a story in The Hill .
“What sealed the deal was the drip, drip, drip of these finance stories,” said Indiana GOP consultant Pete Seat, a former spokesman for President George W. Bush. “The Young campaign was able to frame him as what an average voter would believe a Washington insider would be.”
Seat is not affiliated with either campaign.
Stutzman, a member of the House Freedom Caucus who touts his vote against John A. Boehner for speaker, had ammunition of his own to hurl at Young.
He seized on Young’s support from the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC started by operatives of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to cast him as Washington’s hand-picked candidate.
And among Stutzman’s base, that message resonated.
“There’s no finer endorsement for you than Mitch McConnell being for the other guy,” one voter told Stutzman at a meet-and-greet south of Indianapolis last month.
But when Stutzman tried to tie Young to the establishment — citing his backing from the Chamber of Commerce, for example — Young took pleasure in pointing out that Stutzman, too, had sought the Chamber’s endorsement and had had his own meeting with McConnell.
Young’s campaign wasn’t without bumps.
Even if he won’t admit it , Young’s campaign faltered when Democrats challenged his place on the ballot over the number of signatures he filed.
But with more money in the bank, and additional help from powerful outside interests, Young had an edge on getting his message out. And that helped him overcome doubts about the campaign after its signature snafu.
[Related: Todd Young Remains on Indiana GOP Senate Primary Ballot]
When Stutzman followed Democrats in filing his own challenge to Young’s place on the ballot, he turned off some Hoosier Republicans. Sen. Dan Coats called the challenge “unseemly” and threatened to rethink his neutrality in the race.
“It was a strategic mistake,” Seat said. “He thought he would be able to push Todd Young off the ballot.” The Young campaign used the incident to tie to Stutzman to the Democrats.
If the failure of anti-establishment candidates at the Senate level has proven anything this cycle, it’s that money, and the ability to finance a well-run campaign, still matters.
Not only did Stutzman lack money; he lacked the follow-through from one of the big outside groups that could have given him a boost. The Club for Growth endorsed Stutzman last July, but after bundling about $200,000 for him, its super PAC never came to his aid . (That stands in stark contrast to the $1.5 million the club invested in the Hoosier State trying to stop Trump). The organization cooled on Stutzman after he dismissed a well-respected campaign team and replaced them with an Indiana-based outfit with whom he’d previously worked.
[Related: A Tough Night for Down-Ballot Outsiders]
In Alabama earlier this year, Sen. Richard Shelby didn’t hesitate to dip into his campaign largesse to fend off a poorly-funded challenger . He won 65 percent of the primary vote; Trump won 43 percent of the vote. And even on the Democratic side , a well-funded candidate like Katie McGinty prevailed in last week’s Pennsylvania Senate primary while Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, despite having backed Bernie Sanders, struggled to raise money and catch on as a major outsider threat.
[Related: Van Hollen and McGinty Prove Democratic Establishment Still Has Muscle]
There’s another reason Stutzman and fellow anti-establishment candidates haven’t successfully hitched their campaigns to Trump’s coattails: they aren’t Trump.
As the Washington Post’s Amber Phillips points out , “The Trump Effect seems pretty difficult to replicate if you’re not a once-in-a-lifetime, incredibly unique candidate named Donald Trump.”
“People really do like him,” Seat said of Stutzman as an individual. But likeability never came close to replicating Trump’s movement.
“The fact that people are likely making the choice to vote for Trump and Todd Young reinforces to me,” Seat said, that the Trump movement is all about Trump.
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