INDIANAPOLIS — It’s been nearly six years since Todd Young pulled off one of the biggest Senate upsets of 2016.
Now, up for reelection in barn-red Indiana, the former chair of the Republican Senate campaign arm has pulled off an even more unlikely victory: avoiding a primary challenger.
Young is one of only four Senate GOP incumbents without the golden ticket of a Donald Trump endorsement this year. He has a record of taking some decidedly non-MAGA friendly positions and said Trump bore responsibility for Jan. 6 — in a state Trump carried twice by double-digits.
At the end of last week, one by one, Trump blasted out endorsements for every House Republican incumbent up for reelection from Indiana, including Rep. Greg Pence, Mike Pence’s brother. Young was not among them.
Despite the frostiness from Mar-a-Lago, the cerebral former Marine, a disciple of the late moderate Sen. Dick Lugar and one who has called Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene “nutty,” will skate to the Republican nomination unopposed on May 3.
“It wasn’t accidental, and it was a long time coming,” Cam Savage, Young’s general consultant, said. “I’ve been thinking about this campaign since 2016 because 2016 was such a traumatic experience.”
Around Young’s suburban Indianapolis campaign headquarters, where a poster from the 1986 basketball movie “Hoosiers” hangs, Savage espouses a similar underdog mentality, routinely asking his 14 other campaign staffers: “When did Noah build the ark?” only to answer, “before it rained.”
But the rain never came. After winning the seat by vanquishing Evan Bayh, the former two-term senator and scion of a decadeslong Hoosier political dynasty, Young’s campaign is so confident in its general election prospects with Democratic Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott this November that it is already shedding some junior staffers.
Young has accomplished this despite taking all-but-guaranteed stances to provoke Trump’s ire.
Last January, video of Young pleading his case on voting to certify the 2020 election results with a group of protesters near the Capitol went viral. He was one of 10 GOP senators to visit with President Joe Biden to discuss a coronavirus relief package at the White House last year. He reached across the aisle to introduce fellow Hoosier Pete Buttigieg at his Senate confirmation hearing. He even refused to criticize the president’s mental acuity — an insult that’s become de rigueur to stay in the good graces of the Republican base.
Young briefly visited with the former president at an RNC donor retreat in Palm Beach last April, asking for his endorsement and, according to an adviser, was given no reason to expect one wouldn’t ultimately be in the offing.
But Trump has yet to endorse Young — along with his colleagues John Thune of South Dakota, Jim Lankford of Oklahoma and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
“The fact that Todd Young’s reelection is a foregone conclusion without a Trump endorsement is a really good thing for the future of the GOP,” an Indiana Republican familiar with Trump’s orbit said. “In too many races, a Trump endorsement is seen as the only thing.”
Young managed his feat in part by scoring the endorsements of 90 percent of Indiana GOP county chairs, to whom he hands out his cellphone number and trades texts routinely. He showered the Indiana Republican Party with $835,000, supporting other GOP candidates around the state. And he’s raised a record-setting $12 million this cycle, building a digital fundraising machine and cashing in national donor chits from his 2020 turn as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which saw him raise $275 million that cycle, dwarfing the previous record of $151 million.
Young’s political and fundraising prowess purchased him space to focus on policy, and he’s proven much more at ease pontificating about the “fourth industrial revolution” than talking about culture war issues such as a gender-neutral Potato Head.
“One can have all kinds of feelings about Mattel and whether or not they made the right decision about having a gender-neutral Mr. Potato Head and so forth, but what is a member of the United States Senate really going to be able to do about that? Almost nothing,” Young recently mused in an interview with David Axelrod, a conversation with a well-known Democrat that would have been verboten for certain Republican senators. “But you can get weeks and weeks of attention and probably fundraise a lot for your campaign by talking about this instead of making housing more affordable or coming up with better ways to use our tax dollars more wisely by investing in education and so forth.”
Young “has worked hard to find common ground” but has sidestepped anything provocative to attract MAGA heat, said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist and former top aide at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
During his time in the Senate, Young took a be-seen-and-not heard approach to his first term. He did not make an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” for example, until 2021. He instead dedicated most of his time to working across the aisle on wonky domestic and foreign policy issues with the likes of Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). He advanced housing affordability. He blocked a Trump State Department nominee during his first year in office in order to successfully force Trump to end Saudi Arabia’s blockade of humanitarian aid in Yemen, as millions faced potential starvation. And he focused on reforming presidential war powers.
Mark Lubbers, a longtime adviser to Lugar and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, said Young managed to avoid a primary by taking an old-school approach inspired by his mentor. “Today, all politics is a quarter-inch deep, and Todd isn’t,” he said. “So to combat politics by Twitter, he has invested time and effort, not only into old-style politics — relationships with people in the party and with communities all around Indiana — but he’s taken the job seriously.”
More recently, Young paired up with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in the Senate locker room to develop the framework of the China competitiveness bill now headed to a conference committee. He did this while simultaneously atop the NRSC, squaring off with the Senate majority leader for control of the legislative body in 2020. He’s worked closely with Biden Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to champion the legislation, even as Republican Study Chair and fellow Hoosier Rep. Jim Banks, along with other 2024 GOP presidential hopefuls, have criticized the bill as ineffectual and expensive.
Closer to home, Young’s modicum of independence has not won him reprieve from Indiana Democrats. They plan to paint Young as a “spineless politician” during the general election, a weather-vane pol who flaked on voting for the bipartisan infrastructure law after working with a group of senators to craft key sections.
“Young’s attempt to have it both ways — negotiating a historic, bipartisan infrastructure deal only to back out at the last minute — not only makes Young look weak to the Donald, it makes him a weak senator for Indiana,” state Democratic Party Chair Mike Schmuhl said.
After Tuesday’s primary, Young will face off with McDermott, a brash five-term Northwest Indiana mayor and University of Notre Dame-educated lawyer who frequently swears on his podcast and matches Young’s military service with six years as a Navy nuclear submariner.
McDermott has struggled to match Young’s high-octane fundraising operation, maintaining only $117,000 cash on hand to Young’s $6.1 million. But that hasn’t stopped McDermott — who challenged Young to a charity boxing match last year, though Young did not respond — from pummeling the senator over his infrastructure vote.
“Sen. Young has done everything he can to try and make the former president, a resident of the state of Florida, happy so much that he voted against the best interest of the Hoosier state that he represents,” McDermott told POLITICO of Young’s reversal on the infrastructure bill. “I don’t see how anybody could get sent to Washington, D.C., and vote against bringing $8 billion home to their home state and still survive the federal election.”
Asked about a Trump endorsement earlier this year, Young said only that he was “focused on earning the trust and support of Hoosiers.”
Young may be one of the Senate Republicans who hasn’t received Trump’s endorsement — and one of the only Republicans in the country who doesn’t need it to win.