Indiana U.S. Senate race expected to be a doozy

The U.S. Senate race between Democrat Evan Bayh and Republican Paul Helmke in 1998 ended up in the $4 million range. In 2010, Republican Dan Coats and Democrat Brad Ellsworth spent $9 million. And in 2012, Sen. Dick Lugar, Treasurer Richard Mourdock and Democrat Joe Donnelly saw a combined $51 million course through their campaigns, including $32,844,045 from outside groups.

As for the 2016 showdown between Republican Todd Young and Democrat Evan Bayh, along with Democrat Baron Hill and Republicans Eric Holcomb and Marlin Stutzman, are you ready for this? It topped $75 million.

With the Senate balance in the 2018 mid-terms potentially hanging on U.S. Sen. Donnelly’s re-election, Hoosiers are probably looking at a $100 million race. U.S. Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita are expected to post around $2 million when the second-quarter FEC reports are filed next month. The Republican field also includes businessman Terry Henderson, Kokomo attorney Mark Hurt and New Albany educator Andrew Takami. Donnelly reported $1.3 million raised in the first quarter and is also expected to top the $2 million mark.

State Rep. Mike Braun of Jasper and Attorney General Curtis Hill are also mulling runs.

“I’ve heard comments, and I’ve also been approached by people,” Hill told me. “I think people are looking for bold, fresh leadership in all areas of government, including the United States Senate.” Braun told the Washington Times-Herald that “I have been kicking the tires” and expects a decision by Aug. 1. State Sen. Mike Delph of Carmel is yet another potential candidate.

The real game changer occurred in January 2010 when on a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission it was ruled that the 1st Amendment protection of free speech prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by nonprofit corporations, for-profit corporations, labor unions and other associations. Since then there has been a flood of PAC, super PAC and 501 funds.

Once a candidacy is declared, campaigns cannot coordinate with super PACs. This could be a reason why Messer and Rokita may wait until later this summer to declare.

The 2016 Senate race featured two of the top all-time fundraisers in Young and Bayh, who resurfaced last July with a beginning cash balance of $9.98 million. Bayh made a total of $13.588 million in disbursements, compared to $11.39 million for Young in a race Young won 52-42 percent after the Republican and outside groups essentially destroyed the durable Bayh brand that allowed him to win five statewide campaigns for secretary of state, governor and U.S. Senate.

Republican U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman had $2.92 million in disbursements, Eric Holcomb had $511,094, and original Democratic nominee Baron Hill had $1.15 million. Among these five candidates, they disbursed $29,672,136. That figure could have been higher had Gov. Mike Pence not chosen Holcomb as his lieutenant governor nominee in February, 2016.

The real fuel for this race came with the super PACs, PACs and 501s, which funneled in $45,983,332. The big spenders included the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee PAC at $7,833,646 and the Senate Majority SuperPAC, $5,083,309 on behalf of Bayh. Big spenders for Young included the Senate Leadership Fund at $12,682,214; National Republican Senatorial Committee PAC at $4,917,671; NRA Institute for Legislative Action, $2,190,090; U.S. Chamber of Commerce, $2,749,450.

The opening spending skirmishes in this Senate race began in February when the conservative Judicial Crisis Network ran ads pushing Donnelly to vote for Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, which the senator did.

Over the past couple of weeks, Majority Forward, a Democratic PAC designed to back state legislative candidates, is running cable ads on behalf of Donnelly, describing him as a job creator. So a little less than two years away from the November 2018 election, the ad dollars are already pouring in.

Donnelly campaign manager Peter Hanscom told Howey Politics Indiana that $1.5 milliion of outside money has already been spent against Donnelly by conservative groups like Judicial Crisis Network, the NRA and Susan B. Anthony Fund. Majority Forward is spending $600,000 on 500 gross rating points in Indianapolis, South Bend and Fort Wayne.

“I think we’re looking at the most expensive Senate race in state history,” Hanscom said. “It’s only 2017.”

Messer and Rokita begin this cycle with roughly the same amount of money. Messer reported $1.6 million for the first quarter, compared to Rokita’s $1.55 million. Both have high-rolling finance teams, with Bob Grand and Jim Kittle backing Messer while Rokita has Dan Dumezich on his team.

Tim Edson, a general campaign consultant for Rokita, called the explosion of outside money “crazy” and suggested that 2018 could breech the $100 million mark. “When you consider the Senate race will be at top of the ticket, with the focus not on a presidential race, the 2018 race could equal, if not surpass, 2016,” Edson said on Tuesday. “We have heard some say it could cost upward to $100 million.”

In talking to candidates and operatives, there was no one disputing that towering figure, so get ready for scores of TV, radio and social media ads over the next 18 months. This is going to be a doozy.

BRIAN HOWEY is publisher of the Howey Political Report, a weekly briefing on Indiana politics. Contact him at (317) 506-0883 or at: howeypolitics.com

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