Two Hoosiers try to take out incumbent Todd Young in U.S. Senate race

By: - October 24, 2022 7:00 am
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Libertarian James Sceniak, Republican Todd Young, Democrat Tom McDermott are vying for the U.S. Senate seat. (Darron Cummings/Associated Press)

Just weeks before Hoosiers descend on voting polls, Indiana Republican U.S. Sen. Todd Young is leaning on a recent legislative success in Congress and steering away from controversial topics like abortion that could get in the way of his reelection campaign.

Young is up against Democrat Thomas McDermott, the mayor of Hammond, who is quick to remind voters that Young played a part in confirming the U.S. Supreme Court justices who are responsible for overturning Roe v. Wade earlier this year.

The other candidate, Libertarian James Sceniak, a behavioral therapist, says he seeks to represent “disenfranchised voters” and fight against government overreach.

The Indiana Senate race comes as Republicans fight to regain control of the 50-50 U.S. Senate.

Democrats have not claimed a statewide election win in Indiana since 2012, when Joe Donnelly won his U.S. Senate seat against Republican Richard Mourdock. In a 2018 reelection bid, Donnelly lost to Republican Mike Braun, now Indiana’s junior U.S. senator.

Republicans now dominate Indiana’s elected offices, with the GOP claiming supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, nine of 11 federal seats, and more than 80% of all county offices. 

Young was unchallenged in the primary. He did not get an endorsement from former president Donald Trump. That was after he voted to uphold President Joe Biden’s election win, but later voted to acquit Trump during a Senate impeachment trial.

“I feel incredibly confident as we head into the final weeks of the campaign, but I’ve never taken anything for granted when I’m asking people for their votes,” Young told the Indiana Capital Chronicle. “These are especially serious times, with a lot of challenges facing our nation, and I’m grateful for those who give me their trust and their support.”

Young boasts CHIPS and Science Act

Young’s political career took off in 2009 when he beat out Baron Hill, a Democrat, for Indiana’s 9th Congressional District seat. The former Marine was re-elected twice before he went on to win the Senate seat in 2016, fending off a comeback by Evan Bayh. 

Now Indiana’s senior Republican senator, Young said his top concern is addressing inflation.

“Washington has catalyzed inflation and exacerbated it through ill-advised actions,” Young said. “Inflation is the cruelest form of taxation … at the federal level, that means stopping expenditures to the tune of trillions of dollars — money we don’t have on, things we don’t need, on consumption that doesn’t make us more productive or longer term and therefore does not lead to lower prices.”

Young added that he’s also prioritizing “border security” and “the illegal businesses of cartels,” which he said fuels “a lot of violent crime” and “nefarious activities across the streets of small town America.” 

“We need to secure the southern border. This is not just a labor market issue, not just a public health issue, not just a national security issue, not just a rule of law issue,” he said. “It’s also something essential to deal with if we want to reduce the trafficking of poisons across the southern border like fentanyl.

His biggest legislative achievement in the Senate came earlier this year when President Joe Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act, a $52 billion incentive package to boost domestic semiconductor manufacturing and research in the United States. Young co-sponsored with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York. 

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and other state leaders have praised the legislation in recent months as they push to bring more semiconductor chip manufacturing to Indiana.

Still, Young’s Democratic challenger hopes to gain voter traction by putting blame on the senator and other Republicans for new restrictions on abortion. The incumbent senator dismissed concerns that backlash over his stance on abortion will thwart his reelection bid, however.

Young voted to approve three Trump-appointed Supreme Court justices and said he supports the Supreme Court’s decision to roll back the limits states can place on the procedure. Young maintains that Roe v. Wade “was weak law” and “failed to invite a conversation” with state legislatures. 

“(Roe) took the decision out of the hands of the people, and this is where it now rests, and it’s certainly uncomfortable, I think, for people to have to reconsider the laws around this, collectively,” Young said. “But sometimes we deal with uncomfortable and very challenging issues in a representative democracy, and I trust the people to handle these.”

McDermott press Young on abortion, spending

Young’s main challenger, McDermott, is a five-term mayor of Hammond, the largest city in Lake County. 

He enlisted in the U.S. Navy after graduating high school and was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, for six years before returning to Hammond in 1993. He later earned a bachelor’s from Purdue University Northwest and a law degree from the University of Notre Dame.

McDermott — elected as Hammond’s mayor in 2004 — followed the footsteps of his father, who also served as the city’s mayor from 1984 through 1992. The younger McDermott is now the city’s longest serving mayor.

He describes himself as a moderate — “there’s some things about me that are definitely progressive, but financially, I’m very conservative,” he told the Indiana Capital Chronicle.

McDermott’s senate campaign has largely leaned on tensions surrounding hot-button issues, including abortion access — he’s quick to remind voters that Republicans were responsible for appointing the U.S. Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade in June, for example. Indiana in August became the first state in the nation to approve abortion-restricting legislation since the high court ruling.

“When I first filed, it was more like a protest — Young doesn’t deserve an easy victory,” he said. “A year later, Roe v. Wade has been overturned. Senate Bill One was passed in Indiana. Lightning definitely struck this race.”

McDermott is now banking that enough women voters — who are “fired up” enough over abortion restrictions — will “look for alternatives” and vote for Democrats at the polls. If elected, McDermott said he’ll make it a priority to “fight to codify” abortion rights. 

“There’s a lot of women that are pissed off right now about losing their reproductive liberties. I know it’s anecdotal, but I hear from women almost every stop about, ‘I voted Republican my whole life. I’m never going to do it again. I can’t believe it took away our right to choose,’” he said. “There were limitations in place with Roe versus Wade, and not everybody loved it, but it worked for 50 years, and now we’re out in the wilderness and nobody knows what the laws are anymore.”

The Hammond mayor also criticized Young’s votes for spending bills, which McDermott says have contributed to the national debt and worsened inflation. He pointed to the CHIPS and Science Act, as well as a 2017 tax cut.

“Young worked with President Biden to help get (the CHIPS and Science Act) passed. And let’s be honest, it’s a giveaway. It’s a spending program,” he said. “It’s going to cost probably a trillion dollars. Tech companies are going to be largely the recipients of this money. And it’s right in the middle of high inflation, which Young is criticizing left and right.”

But despite his successful career in local politics, McDermott has struggled to gain traction against Young, especially when it comes to fundraising.

McDermott raised $478,000 in the most recent campaign finance period while Young raked in $1.2 million. Young has a massive $5.5 million on hand for the campaign’s finale compared to $397,000 for McDermott.

At least $330,000 of McDermott’s fundraising has come from campaign donors who have also been awarded contracts by the Hammond Board of Public Works. McDermott appoints the majority of the board’s members.

He told the Indiana Capital Chronicle that the contractors’ donations show “they think I’m a great candidate, because it’s not good for their business if I’m not the mayor.”

“Money is extremely important and it’s unfortunate,” McDermott said. “Contractors that get contracts from the City of Hammond donated to my U.S. Senate campaign. If I was a contractor, and Mayor McDermott was doing good business in the city and bringing in lots of work, I wouldn’t want to see Mayor McDermott become the U.S. senator because it’s good for my business if he stays there in City Hall.”

Libertarian candidate looks to rein in government overreach  

Sceniak, a behavioral therapist who lives in Greenwood, is additionally making his political debut as the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate.

Originally from northern Indiana, he received an associate’s degree in human services from Ivy Tech Community College and a bachelor’s degree in human services from Bethel University. Now, Sceniak works full time with children who have autism — even as he’s running his campaign. 

“Everything we do is behavior. So when we talk about the economy, when we talk about small businesses, we’re talking about business owners, all that’s driven by behaviors. Politics is driven by behaviors, criminal justice reform and crime is all all driven by behaviors,” he said. “When you understand behaviors, you understand why — the context of how different things affect different people.”

His policy priorities include criminal justice reform, ensuring religious freedom, gun rights, increased care for veterans, and “medical freedom.”

Sceniak said the COVID-19 pandemic largely drove him to run for the senate seat, citing “an infringement on First Amendment rights and civil liberties.”

“I assumed that nobody would infringe on those rights, but I saw it happening throughout COVID,” he said. “I saw small business owners having to shut down how they make a livelihood … it created a chaotic system.”

When it comes to abortion, Sceniak said the issue “will absolutely impact this race.” Although he considers himself to be “pro-life,” the Libertarian canidate said that means “there are ways to reduce abortion without a ban or without criminalizing it.” Helpful solutions “to naturally decrease abortions” include prioritizing economic stability for mothers and families, he said, as well as increased contraceptive options and added support for adoptions and foster care.

“It’s a complex issue that deserves a complex answer. And my answer is always the same — politicians should not act as physicians, and medical opinions are absolutely important,” he said. “When I say when I look at pro-life policies that I believe will support life, I look at both the life of the mother and the woman who has to make these decisions. And I also look at the life of the baby and how we can naturally reduce abortion rates while still protecting freedoms.”

Even as a third-party candidate, Sceniak rejected the notion of being “an underdog candidate,” adding that “it’s a fallacy that Republicans assume they’re going to win.”

“Ultimately, my race is to win and to show Hoosiers that we could do politics better. There’s a lot of disenfranchised voters and people who are frustrated. And what I’m presenting to them is a message of, ‘We can come to the middle with real solutions that affect real Hoosiers.’ And yes, it’s an uphill battle, but we can do this with optimism and be proactive,” he said. “In my solution, there’s something you can vote for. And I’m earning those votes all across the state.”


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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.