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HOWEY: Donnelly passes on a challenge to Sen. Young

U.S. Sen. Todd Young is a political death star when he’s matched up against an opponent of congressional pedigree.
Credit: Joe Donnelly Press
Sen. Joe Donnelly gave his farewell address on Capitol Hill Tuesday, December 11.

INDIANAPOLIS — U.S. Sen. Todd Young is a political death star when he’s matched up against an opponent of congressional pedigree.

In 2010, he won a four-way Republican primary by defeating former congressman Mike Sodrel. His victory nearly wiped out his campaign war chest, but he raised $357,000 in the third quarter and overcame a $700,000 cash disadvantage to defeat Democrat U.S. Rep. Baron Hill, 52-42 percent that autumn.

In the 2016 U.S. Senate primary, Rep. Young defeated Republican U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman 67-33 percent. He figured he would face Hill again, but that July the Democrat stepped aside, former governor and senator Evan Bayh took his place with $10 million he had hoarded since he left the Senate six years earlier, and lost to Young by a 10-point margin.

The worst kept secret was that Young would seek a second Senate term, announcing on Twitter and YouTube last week, “When you entrusted me the honor of serving you five years ago, I swore an oath to defend the constitution. I also pledged to you that I would work on behalf of all Hoosiers to deliver conservative results. I believe I’ve lived up to that and kept my word but more work remains, so today I’m announcing my reelection campaign.”

With Young officially in the race, the next question would be, who will challenge this Republican? The obvious answer was former senator Joe Donnelly. His former campaign manager, Mike Schmuhl, is running for Indiana Democratic Party chair against Trish Whitcomb with Donnelly’s imprimatur.

When I talked to Donnelly in January, he said, “I spent six years raising $18 million and then there was a candidate who can write a check for $20 million in an afternoon. Those are always things that have to get considered as well.”

Donnelly was confident he could win a second term. “Data analytics said if I hit 1 million (votes), I would win by 5 percent or 6 percent,” he said. But that was before President Trump appeared at a half dozen rallies for Braun. “We always knew it would be tough because of Donald Trump; we were basically running against Donald Trump,” Donnelly said of his 5 percent loss to Braun.

Clearly Joe Donnelly is enjoying citizen life, practicing law from his Granger home and teaching a national security class at his Notre Dame alma mater. A week after Young announced for reelection, Donnelly ended any suspense that he might return to the public sphere next year.

“It was a great honor to serve our state in the U.S. House and Senate,” Donnelly said. “During the last two years, I have had the chance to teach U.S. national security at Notre Dame, to practice law, to work on Hoosier renewable energy issues, and to work with Indiana businesses to create more jobs. I remain open to being involved in public service again, but I will not be a candidate for public office in 2022.”

There are several obvious reasons that the timing is not right for Donnelly’s return. Running in the White House party’s first mid-term election would be arduous. If Schmuhl does take the helm of the decimated Indiana Democrats, rebuilding the party from the grassroots up will likely take more than two years. And Young just finished a stint heading the National Republican Senatorial Committee, raising a record $70 million.

Since 2012, Indiana U.S. Senate races have cost exponentially more each cycle. In 2012, Sen. Richard Lugar, Donnelly and Republican nominee Richard Mourdock and PACs raised and spent some $51 million. In his race against Evan Bayh, there was $75 million spent. In 2018, Braun, Republicans Todd Rokita and Luke Messer, Donnelly and their PAC allies raised and spent more than $100 million.

“I’m prepared for an incredibly expensive race,” Young told me just an hour before Donnelly announced he wouldn’t challenge. “I’ve always entered these races and am entering this one assuming the worst but hoping for the best and I prepare accordingly. Whether this is a $150 million race or $200 million, I’ll be ready. I’ve laid the groundwork for reelection campaign from my two years of service as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. I feel strongly positioned to raise whatever we need to raise."

Young has also gathered up endorsements across the GOP establishment, from the congressional delegation to the Indiana Statehouse, and throughout the state. It was designed to preclude a primary challenge. Young has been close to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has fallen out of favor with the Trump base.

With Donnelly not running, it’s unclear whether there is a credible Democratic challenger in the wings. For Hoosier Democrats, the bench is wafer thin. Currently, Haneefah Khaaliq, a political unknown who is executive director of the Gary Human Relations Commission, is the only Democrat seeking the nomination.

The party’s mayoral, congressional and General Assembly benches yield no obvious challengers, and the state’s most conspicuous Democratic rising star, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, is on a presidential track with no interest in serving in Congress.

Young may be facing what Sen. Lugar did in his 2006 reelection, which is a Libertarian opponent.

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.

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