INDIANAPOLIS—While much of America has raged and roiled this election year with wrenching battles over abortion, inflation and the Mar-a-Lago raid, Indiana’s U.S. Senate race has been about as quiet as a library reading room on a sleepy afternoon.
The incumbent, Republican Todd Young, has focused his campaign ads on his service as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps—with only the briefest and most glancing mentions of his time and record in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.
His Democratic challenger, Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott, until recently didn’t have enough money to buy bagels for his staff, much less purchase TV time.
And the Libertarian candidate, behavioral therapist James Sceniak, just hopes some Hoosiers will acknowledge his presence a time or two before election day rolls around.
Such somnolence couldn’t last.
Sunday night, during the first and likely only debate among the candidates, the race began to awaken from its slumber.
The debate took place in the studio of WFYI, the PBS affiliate in Indianapolis. The setting made the encounter at times feel stilted, as three men not particularly gifted with charisma tried to make connections with voters through the camera lens and often failed.
Nonetheless, the debate did provide some fireworks.
While not as nasty as the Senate showdown in Georgia—where the candidates, Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker traded shots over allegations of, among other things, spousal abuse—Indiana’s tilt did show that the contenders for Indiana’s Senate seat wouldn’t be shy about mixing it up.
Not surprisingly, Young and McDermott did most of the battling, with Sceniak playing the part of the bewildered neighbor who had wandered into the middle of an intense family quarrel.
McDermott spent the entire night on the offensive, using his time to attack Young’s credibility and his commitment to defending Hoosiers’ interests. When Young focused his attention on McDermott, he did so mostly to counterpunch.
That’s not surprising.
Incumbents in what is supposed to be the nation’s great deliberative body have a fine line to straddle when they run for re-election. They must look senatorial while avoiding looking like pushovers.
That likely accounted for Young’s somewhat surprising embrace and endorsement of President Joe Biden’s support of Ukraine’s war of defense against Russian strongman Vladimir Putin—which was followed immediately by a Donald Trump-like demand that our European allies pay more toward the effort.
McDermott derided such a balancing act as a “two-step” and evidence that Young is “two-faced.”
More likely, it’s a sign of just how divided this nation has become and, consequently, how much more difficult statesmanship has become.
Many of the night’s exchanges were predictable.
Young used the word “inflation” almost as a form of punctuation, dropping it into sentences the way most people use commas, whether it fit or not. If there was a reliable means by which to determine if Young feared that McDermott might have drawn blood with a thrust, the speed with which the senator dragged an unrelated question back to rising prices provided the best tell.
McDermott engaged with Young on economic questions—he noted, for example, that America had rolled up $16 trillion of its $30 trillion accumulated debt while Young has served in Congress—but he focused most of his fire on other areas.
If inflation was Young’s touchstone, abortion and women’s rights were McDermott’s. He came back to the subject repeatedly. He jabbed at Young’s votes to confirm the three U.S. Supreme Court justices—Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett—who provided the numbers necessary to overturn Roe v. Wade and end a half-century’s constitutional protections of women’s reproductive rights.
Young was at his most flat-footed in the dustups regarding women’s rights, but he did score when he talked about the economic pressures burdening Hoosiers.
The few polls taken on this race show it to be close—within the margin of error and therefore much tighter than any veteran political observer likely would think.
That’s evidence of one of two things.
Either the Supreme Court’s abortion about-face provided a seismic shift in voting patterns, or the science of accurate polling now has become impossible.
If this race is tight, though, the two main candidates walked away as they walked in. Neither knocked the other down and neither was knocked down.
But they at last may have awakened this Senate race from its prolonged nap.