Todd Young, Indiana’s senior senator, was given the unenviable task of leading the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2020 cycle, defending nearly twice as many seats as Democrats on one of the most difficult maps for his party in years. On election night, what was expected to be an easy Democratic capture of the majority wasn’t—and even moderate Sen. Susan Collins hung on in Maine, outperforming President Donald Trump by seven percentage points. Control of the chamber came down to Georgia, where two contests headed to January runoffs. Trump lost reelection but he kept dishonestly and baselessly insisting that the November election had been fraudulent and that he in fact had won. And then Republicans lost both Georgia seats—and the majority.
Campaigning amid the Trump tsunami was a feeling Young was not entirely unfamiliar with. He was one of just two new Republicans elected to the Senate in 2016 amid Trump’s surprise White House win. But if Young was generally a loyal supporter of Trump during his first two years in the Senate—ratings by Five Thirty Eight showed Young voting in favor of the president’s position nearly 93 percent of the time—his style became more akin to former Indiana GOP Sen. Richard Lugar, for whom Young once worked. In a third of a century on Capitol Hill, Lugar established a reputation as a pragmatic conservative who frequently reached across the political aisle. Likewise, Young described himself as an “independent-minded, center-right conservative Republican” in a 2018 interview with the South Bend Tribune. “But I went to Washington to get things done. Typically, that requires developing strong relationships with your Democratic colleagues.” In fact, a think tank established by Lugar ranked Young among its top 10 senators in its 2017 “Bipartisan Index,” which measures sponsorship of legislation with members of the other party.
For three decades, the Senate seat Young holds shifted from one Hoosier to another with close ties to one of two earlier senators, Democrat Birch Bayh or Republican Dan Quayle: Evan Bayh, Birch Bayh’s son and a former governor, and Dan Coats, who got his political start as a Quayle aide. Young falls within this tradition: His wife is a niece of former second lady Marilyn Quayle. And Young won in 2016 by thwarting Evan Bayh’s comeback bid in one of that year’s marquee Senate contests.
While Young was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and spent his first 13 years outside Indiana, his family has ties to the Hoosier State stretching back five generations. Young went to high school in Hamilton County, a well-to-do suburb of Indianapolis, where his prowess as a soccer player helped his school’s team win a state championship. He enlisted in the Navy after high school, and a year later received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he also played on the soccer team. Upon graduation, he opted for service in the Marine Corps, where he worked with reconnaissance drones—including a stint fighting narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean.
Transferred to Chicago to oversee Marine recruiting, Young attended the University of Chicago’s business school at night, earning an MBA. while becoming a fan of free-market economist Friedrich von Hayek. Young went on to the University of London’s Institute for the Study of the Americas, where he received a second master’s degree and wrote a thesis on the economic history of Midwestern agriculture. Moving to Washington, he worked at the conservative Heritage Foundation and as a legislative assistant to Lugar. In 2004, Young returned to Indiana to work on the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Mitch Daniels.
In January 2009, Young announced plans to run for the House of Representatives seat held by Democrat Baron Hill, who was first elected in 1998. Young narrowly won a three-way primary that included former Rep. Mike Sodrel—who had ousted Hill in 2004, only to see Hill regain the seat two years later. In the 2010 fall campaign, Young attacked Hill as a rubber stamp for the Obama administration. Hill, a former high school basketball star in a hoops-crazy state, emphasized his Hoosier roots and characterized Young as an out-of-touch lawyer who had spent much of his career outside Indiana. In a year in which House Democrats lost more than 60 seats nationwide, Young ousted Hill 52%-42%.
Young was awarded a prized seat on the Ways and Means Committee in 2013. The same year, he took over as lead sponsor of a key legislative initiative for Republican conservatives: the REINS Act, which would have given Congress oversight of federal regulations with economic effects exceeding $100 million. Unlike some of his more hard-line Class of 2010 colleagues, he supported the 2011 compromise to raise the debt limit, saying he wanted deeper spending cuts but that the measure “moves us in the right direction.” Despite his desire to work with Democrats, Young at times utilized sharp rhetoric, once calling former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid “useless” and Reid’s House counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, “an irrelevant cheerleader for lost-cause liberalism.” He had a competitive reelection fight in 2012, defeating his Democratic opponent, Shelli Yoder, a former Miss Indiana who called for turning the region into a leader in clean energy, 55%-45%, but had little trouble winning a third term in 2014.
After his second stint in the Senate, Coats—who would go on to become Trump’s first director of national intelligence—announced his retirement in March 2015. The state GOP establishment rallied around Young, and several other House Republicans opted to run for reelection after having eyed the Senate seat. But Rep. Marlin Stutzman, who had mounted a tea party-infused insurgency in the primary against Coats six years earlier, ran again. He charged that the “D.C. establishment” had selected Young “to play as their puppet.”
Young’s next hurdle was an effort by Indiana Democrats to have him thrown off the primary ballot for not having filed enough petition signatures in one congressional district. The national GOP came to Young’s aid, and the state election commission rejected the ballot challenge. In the May primary, Young overwhelmed Stutzman, 67%-33%, and seemed poised to cruise to victory against the Democrats’ candidate: Hill, his 2010 opponent. However, in July 2016, Evan Bayh—who earlier had turned aside entreaties to run again for the seat that he held from 1998 to 2010—was persuaded to change his mind, and Hill stepped aside. Early public opinion polls showed Bayh with a 20-point lead, and national Democrats saw him as a shoo-in. But it didn’t take long for problems to surface for Bayh.
Unlike his father—author of the 25th and 26th amendments to the U.S. Constitution—the younger Bayh never appeared fully comfortable in the Senate. After forgoing reelection in 2010, he said he was fed up with congressional gridlock in an op-ed for The New York Times. Bayh said it was time for him to "contribute to society in another way." By the end of the campaign, Young—aided by nearly $29 million from independent groups—had succeeded in reframing Bayh’s desire to contribute to society into a question of how much society had contributed to Bayh. The Democrat’s net worth had increased sixfold after he left the Senate, and he was put on the defensive by an Associated Press report disclosing he had had numerous conversations with headhunters and future corporate employers during his last year on Capitol Hill. The report noted Bayh was among a small group of Democrats who helped kill a tax increase on private equity gains, opposed by Apollo Global Management; he later went to work for Apollo, after initially having denied meeting with the group.
Bayh’s ties to the state since leaving the Senate also came into question. His voter status had been classified as inactive. And, while asserting that he remained an Indiana resident, he was found to have rarely spent time at an Indianapolis condominium he owned; during a local television interview, he couldn’t recall the correct address of the residence. Such stumbles were symptomatic of Bayh’s apparent expectation that he could return to his old seat without major effort; he was unprepared for the rigors of a competitive campaign. Independent expenditure groups poured in $18 million in an effort to prop up his struggling candidacy. It wasn’t enough: Young won 52%-42%.
Like his onetime boss Lugar, who took on Republican and Democratic presidents on foreign policy, Young challenged Trump on that front—particularly on the civil war in Yemen. In December 2018, he was among just seven Republicans to join with all Senate Democrats to support a resolution withdrawing U.S. support for Saudi-backed forces in Yemen. Young, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, also authored legislation with the panel’s ranking Democrat, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, to suspend U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of that country’s efforts to prevent food and medical supplies from entering Yemen.
Earlier, Young had put a hold on Senate confirmation of Trump’s choice for State Department legal adviser, which he lifted after Trump agreed to press the Saudis to lift their blockade of Yemeni ports—a tactic that had triggered concerns of widespread famine. “It offends my sensibilities—and I know it offends the sensibilities of all Americans—that there are countries in this day and age that are using food as a weapon of war,” Young told USA Today in late 2018. “And it further offends my sensibilities … that the United States has partnered with these countries.” In 2019, Young and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut also worked to force a vote to terminate or restrict arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
On domestic issues, perhaps Young’s most notable bipartisan legislative effort has been a bill authored with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. The measure, which cleared the House and Senate at the end of 2018, required federal agencies to report in their budget requests whether they acted on recommendations by federal auditors and inspectors for cost reductions and program improvements. Young contended that $90 billion in savings could result if such recommendations were followed. “Let’s face it: She’s sort of emblematic of the left,” Young told the South Bend Tribune: “I candidly wanted to send a message. I can work with anyone, anyone who wants to advance a good government agenda.” Amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Young reached across the aisle again, proposing with Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet the RESTART Act, which would build upon the Paycheck Protection Program by extending the timeframe businesses have to spend funds from eight to 16 weeks.
Young was selected as NRSC chairman for the 2020 cycle without opposition for the highly partisan position. The task before him was daunting: defending 23 Republican seats to just 12 for Democrats. And Republicans running for reelection in states that Trump lost in 2016, including Cory Gardner in Colorado and Collins in Maine, had to walk a fine line, with the president’s support cratering even more throughout their states. With the worsening pandemic and the absence of Trump’s leadership on the issue, a cratering economy, and protests against racial injustice and police brutality that swept the country in the summer of 2020, Senate Republican prospects began to look even more dire. Typically solid red states such as South Carolina, Kansas and Alaska became battlegrounds.
In April 2020, the NRSC circulated a memo advising candidates: “Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban—attack China.” Predictably, it incensed Trump, and his advisers threatened to not support candidates who followed such advice. The NRSC later admitted it was “inartful in its wording” and was simply pressing Republicans to play offense on China, according to Politico. Young told reporters at the Capitol in May that working on the crisis could help boost incumbents. “Naturally our candidates have pivoted aggressively towards their official responsibilities. And I think that will be beneficial come November,” Young said, according to Roll Call.
Throughout the late summer and fall, Republican messaging depicted the protests as violent, with the committee warning of an “angry mob” and the decimation of police budgets if Democrats were elected. But worries seeped up again in early October after Trump’s disastrous debate performance and his subsequent COVID-19 diagnosis. The death of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in late September gave Republicans an unexpected opening, and they quickly pushed through the confirmation of her replacement, conservative jurist Amy Coney Barrett. The renewed focus on the judiciary, a key issue for many Republican voters, was a gift.
Ultimately, even though polls showed Democrats were on path to win back the Senate on election night, Republicans emerged victorious in nearly every Senate battleground. Strategists credited the outcome not only to a surge in Trump voters that hadn’t registered in polling but also a fear among suburban voters of a more progressive Democratic agenda. The GOP lost seats in Arizona and Colorado, but flipped back the Alabama seat they’d lost in a 2017 special election. That left Republicans with only one net loss, and Democrats two seats shy. Two seats were outstanding in Georgia, and those contests, headed to January runoffs, quickly took on outsize importance. If Republicans could hold just one seat, they would keep their narrow majority. But if Democrats flipped both, the Senate would be locked 50-50, giving Vice President Kamala Harris—and Democrats—a tiebreaker.
Young and national Republicans wanted to underscore that the races could be a firewall preventing Democrats from having unified control of the White House, House and Senate. But Trump myopically focused on his lie that the election was stolen from him and sought to overturn the results. His unsubstantiated claims undercut and overpowered the GOP’s checks-and-balances message in Georgia, where he had lost narrowly to Biden and was fighting with top state officials—all Republicans. On a November conference call, the Washington Post reported, Young said he was “assuming the worst but hoping for the best” regarding Trump’s antics. On January 6, those fears would be realized: Both races in Georgia were called for Democrats—thanks to a surge in Black turnout and a dip in GOP voters compared to November—and a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.
In a Washington Post reporter’s video that was widely circulated on Twitter, Young is seen being confronted by some of them, one of whom urges him to vote against the certification of Biden’s election because “you’re supposed to represent our opinions.’’ Wearing an Army jacket, Young emotionally replies that he would support the certification, saying, “My opinion doesn’t matter, and you know what when it comes to the law, our opinions don’t matter, the law matters.’’ Young was one of four incumbent Republican senators whom Trump did not endorse in 2022, but nonetheless ran unopposed in the Republican primary.
In a September 2022 profile, Indianapolis Star reporter Kaitlin Lange reinforces previous portrayals of Young as a thoughtful, bipartisan successor to Lugar standing apart from hard-liners like Indiana’s junior senator, Mike Braun: “ … Young's attitude and demeanor may be the reason his seat is widely seen as safe as he inches closer to the November election where he’ll face Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott, a Democrat who smoked marijuana in a campaign ad and isn't afraid to make somewhat crass jokes.’’ Another reason, the story later notes, is “a fundraising campaign war chest 41 times the size of McDermott’s as of the end of June.’’ – The Almanac of American Politics 2022