What Happened to That $200M Senate Race?

Once upon a time if you ran a U.S. Senate race in Indiana, you would spend between $4 million and $5 million, like Evan Bayh did in 1998. By the time Republican Dan Coats sought his return to the Senate in 2010, the number grew to about $6 million.

That was the year of the Citizen’s United U.S. Supreme Court decision, which restored some of the 1st Amendment rights of corporations and unions that had been restricted under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.

In 2012, U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, his victorious GOP primary challenger Richard Mourdock and Democrat Joe Donnelly (the general election victor) saw more than $51 million in spending by and on behalf of their candidacies, including $32 million spent by outside groups.

In 2016, when Todd Young fended off two primary opponents and then thwarted a comeback by Evan Bayh, the total rose to $75 million. In 2018, when Republican Mike Braun upset Sen. Donnelly, it was $110 million, including $20 million from a billionaire Donnelly told me about, though he declined to say who. “Campaigns are increasingly funded by tens of millions of dollars. Anonymous dark money interests (are) really doing damage to this country,” Donnelly said in his Senate farewell address. “People ought to have the right to know who’s talking to them, who’s standing up for what they have to say. I’ve always believed that if you have something to say, you ought to put your name on it.”

This past week the two major party contenders for this year’s Senate race – Republican incumbent Todd Young and Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., – both were finally running TV ads for the first time in a race that some of us in the pundit class figured might crest above $200 million.

Except that it won’t come even close to that. McDermott made an extremely modest TV ad buy at $56,000 earlier this week, according to AdImpact, then announced on Thursday another $250,000 “that will keep us on TV, in multiple Hoosier markets, thru Election 2022.”

The McDermott buy pales compared to Young, which was at 1,600 gross rating points last week in the Indianapolis and Fort Wayne media markets, ramping up from there through Election Day. Young announced on Wednesday that his campaign raised $1.2 million in the third quarter for a total of $14.7 million, and had $5.5 million cash on hand. At this writing, McDermott had yet to raise above $1 million, though his third quarter FEC report will be filed within hours of this column filing.

What’s going on here? With the current Senate tied at 50/50, how is it that this race will fall about $185 million short? McDermott is a successful five-term mayor of Hammond, the largest city in Lake County. He was seen as an ambitious rising star, though he lost a 1st Congressional District primary race to Frank Mrvan in 2020.

First of all, Young has been a fundraising juggernaut since he was elected to the U.S. House in 2010. Along the way he has significantly out-raised all of his opponents that have included former U.S. Reps. Mike Sodrel, Baron Hill, Marlin Stutzman and Evan Bayh, a Democrat who was once considered unbeatable and was edged out at the 11th hour to be Barack Obama’s 2008 running mate by … Joe Biden.

Second, Indiana has essentially become a one-party state, with Republicans holding General Assembly super majorities, nine of 11 federal seats, all of the Statehouse constitutional offices, a majority of city halls and more than 80% of all county offices. Like Ohio, which has seen national Democrats pass on Tim Ryan’s Senate race against Republican J.D. Vance, if a state’s red hue becomes strong enough, it chases the way the notion that it is competitive.

Last week, Indy Politics released an ARW Poll showing Young with just a 39-37% lead over McDermott. But the fact that national money isn’t spilling into the race, Young hasn’t gone negative against the Hammond mayor, and McDermott using his ad to ramp up fundraising, is telling.

The other factor – the first mid-term race under a Democratic president – had many pundits predicting a GOP tsunami. Thursday’s federal announcement that inflation was still galloping at an 8.2% rate was bad news for Democrats, while President Biden’s approval hovered around 42%.

The one beacon McDermott is still hoping for is a massive turnout of female voters angered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling in June that overturned Roe v. Wade. McDermott said on WJOB Tuesday that abortion rights are expected to ramp up female turnout and that the 2014 Obergefell Supreme Court decision that paved the way for same sex marriage is probably next.

“We’ll find out,” the Hammond mayor said in response to a question about female turnout on Election Day. “That’s what Nov. 8 is all about. Todd Young confirmed three of the justices that overturned Roe v. Wade. If women don’t punish the GOP for their overreach, and they overreached, what’s next? Same sex marriage. Obergefell is next. That’s going to be the next right the Supreme Court takes away from same-sex couples. It’s not far away, it’s not a scare tactic, it’s a fact.”

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com.