Picture in your mind an ambitious elementary school kid selling lemonade on the corner of a busy neighborhood. It’s a beautiful day and he’s excited for the opportunity to polish his entrepreneurial skill set.
But his sales pitch is all wrong.
Instead of promoting the product he wants customers to buy, he’s got a bullhorn, and he’s yelling at the top of his lungs about the perils of Coca-Cola.
This is the current state of the U.S. Senate race in Indiana.
A few months ago, it looked like a fait accompli that Republican congressman Todd Young would trade in his House office for one on the other side of Capitol Hill. He had to fend off a primary challenge and overcome some self-inflicted wounds, but he was well positioned to win in a GOP state.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, along came Evan Bayh.
Coca-Cola, if you will.
To fully understand the Bayh brand, you have to be my age or older. I was 8 when Bayh was elected governor, and I remember to this day my mom affectionately referring to him as “Boy Guv” when he’d come on the evening news.
Bayh swept into office in his early 30s eager to solve problems and work across the aisle. Not only did he balance the budget, but he turned it into a surplus. He cut taxes and added jobs and surrounded himself with a talented group of young staffers who would become the next generation of Indiana community and corporate leaders.
Millennials might know him for his time in the U.S. Senate, but for most Hoosiers, the Bayh brand was fully baked in the 1990s.
Young, on the other hand, hasn’t really established a brand. In a way, that’s not his fault. He’s in his 40s and he hasn’t done much to set himself apart from the tea party pack he accompanied to D.C. in 2010.
But in the weeks since Bayh entered the Senate race, Young has shown he’s not ready for prime time. Instead of taking the high road and showing Hoosiers what he has to offer, he’s descended into the realm of bitter, partisan attacks that seem to be making Bayh and his brand stronger.
After all, it was fixing the brokenness in Washington that lured the former governor and senator out of retirement. With every negative ad, Young and his friends reinforce the notion that the current folks leading Congress cannot and will not get along with one another.
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola is doing just fine.
I’m not going to say it’s impossible to defeat Bayh. My friends who worked for Bart Peterson and Richard Lugar are persistent reminders that it ain’t over until all the ballots are counted. But rebranding quite possibly the most-loved living last name in Indiana politics is a tall task.
I don’t think Young is a bad person at his core; he’s just angry that something he thought was a done deal is now far from it. That said, a potential loss in 2016 does not have to portend the end of an ascendant Republican in a red state.
Unfortunately, Young’s current approach might leave him standing alone in November holding anextinguished match in a crowded field of rising stars. The stakes are high, and it’s often tempting to scorch the earth, but sometimes you just can’t beat the Real Thing.•
Wagner is a lifelong Indianapolis resident and founding principal of Mass Ave Public Relations, a local public relations and publicity firm. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.