The race to fill the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Dan Coats has turned into an increasingly hostile war of words between two sitting Indiana GOP congressmen, mimicking the broader conflict engulfing the party's presidential primary.
U.S. Reps. Marlin Stutzman and Todd Young, each elected to Congress in 2010, have campaigned as stalwart conservatives on similar platforms. But with just over one month until the May 3 primary, Young is trying to paint his tea party-backed rival as an ideologue who prioritizes obstructionism over passing legislation. And Stutzman has characterized Young as a pawn of the establishment at a time when Americans are increasingly frustrated with "a system that benefits a few people."
The tone of the campaign has some similarities to the GOP presidential race, with businessman Donald Trump and tea party-backed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tapping voter anger with Washington and forcing out of the race more mainstream candidates such as former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, both from Florida.
The Indiana Senate race could have national implications as Democrats seek to pick up at least four seats to retake control of the Senate. That's a possibility Young highlighted Wednesday, when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced it was endorsing him. The chamber also reported it has spent $1 million for television ads supporting Young, according to federal campaign data.
"We have too many D.C. politicians — too many poseurs and pretenders who will talk a good game, but do not have any results in the end to show for it," said Young, who recently got another boost when One Nation PAC — a group with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — announced it would run television ads for him.
Stutzman, who co-owns his family's northwest Indiana farm, says the chamber's decision is "ironic" because "I'm the business guy and they are endorsing the attorney." He characterized Young as a reliable "yes" vote for the priorities of GOP Congressional leaders. Stutzman is a member of the Freedom Caucus of conservative Republican House members whose aversion to compromise led to former House Speaker John Boehner resigning last year.
"The American people are starting to figure out that things are not getting any better for us and they are tired of it," Stutzman told The Associated Press, adding that Young's definition of accomplishment is "passing a bill out of the House that goes nowhere in the Senate."
The harsh words followed a bitter turn in the campaign, when Stutzman and the Indiana Democratic Party challenged Young's candidacy, arguing he didn't gather enough voter signatures to legally qualify for the ballot.
The state Election Division reported that Young had 501 signatures in the 1st Congressional District, but Democrats and Stutzman challenged that number. An Associated Press count of Young's petitions found he was three signatures short. State GOP leaders said the discrepancy was a sloppy oversight by Young.
But Young raised $2.9 million in campaign finance, beating Stutzman's haul by a 3-to-1 margin in 2015, according to federal records.
Attorneys bickered during an Indiana Election Commission meeting — highlighting a schism in the state GOP that pits the chamber of commerce Republican establishment against tea party conservatives. But ultimately, the commission deadlocked 2-2 on partisan lines, with a tie allowing Young to remain on the ballot.
Democrats hope Stutzman emerges from the primary to take on their candidate, former U.S. Rep. Baron Hill. They view Stutzman as extremely conservative with an outspoken nature that could turn off general election voters, much like GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who made controversial comments about abortion and rape and lost the 2012 Senate race to Democrat Joe Donnelly.
"I've beaten Baron Hill before. I can beat Baron Hill again," said Young, who defeated Hill in 2010.
But Stutzman, who has the financial backing of the conservative group Club for Growth, argues it's more about what Young would do in office.
"He's not analyzing the problems in Washington, he's just playing the inside game," Stutzman told the AP. "As long as he votes the way leadership tells him to they are going to support him."