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Indiana's U.S. Senate race a debate over which issues voters should care most about this election

Three still images taken from video interviews with Indiana's candidates for U.S. Senate. From left to right are Libertarian James Sceniak, Republican incumbent Senator Todd Young and Democrat Tom McDermott. All three are White men. Sceniak has a beard. Young and McDermott are clean shaven.
Alan Mbathi
IPB News
In interviews conducted in September and October 2022, Indiana's candidates for U.S. Senate discussed some of the top issues in the campaign. From left to right are Libertarian James Sceniak, U.S. Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott, a Democrat.

This year’s U.S. Senate race in Indiana isn’t just a debate over who’s right and who’s wrong on key issues. It’s also over which issues voters should care about most in the first place.

Ask incumbent U.S. Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) which issue is most important this election and he’s quick to point to the economy.

“It’s hurting a lot of Hoosiers and they’ll be voting their pocketbooks and their kitchen tables when it comes to November,” Young said.

Young is also quick to assign blame for high prices at the gas pump and grocery store. He acknowledges the impact of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic - but mostly, he said the cause is Democrats in Washington, D.C.

Watch each candidate's one-on-one interview about the key issues in the U.S. Senate race.

“When President [Joe] Biden came into office, he not only flooded the zone with trillions of dollars, he also restricted the supply of different things … let’s stop spending trillions that we don’t have on things that we don’t need,” Young said.

In particular, Young said the president has stifled oil and gas markets by regulating or threatening regulation.

Libertarian candidate James Sceniak tells a similar story. He said his top issue – inflation – is primarily the effect of federal government spending. But unlike Young, Sceniak doesn’t point the finger solely at Democrats.

“Todd Young contributed $11 trillion to the debt," Sceniak said. "He’s spending more than Bernie Sanders. And absolutely the fact that he is blaming it all on Biden is a lack of responsibility and not showing his true voting record. And he continues to vote this way.”

Democratic candidate Tom McDermott voiced a similar refrain.

“I find it funny that a U.S. senator is trying to blame me for the rise in inflation and for the cost of gas because I'm a Democrat … he's a U.S. senator," McDermott said. "He's been in Washington, D.C. for 12 years, blaming the mayor of Hammond for the price of gas and for the high inflation rate. That's disingenuous and it's a lack of leadership.”

READ MORE: What do I need on Election Day? The midterm election is Nov. 8

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When it comes to solutions to inflation, all three candidates have the same answer, at least initially: reduce federal spending. McDermott acknowledged that Indiana is a conservative state, something he'd have to keep in mind should he represent Hoosiers in Washington.

And he said the rising national debt is a concern.

"And that's something that we have to keep in the back of our mind, balancing also the need to protect the promise that we made to American workers, the Social Security fund, making sure that that's not insolvent, that it's there, as promised, to help people in their golden years," McDermott said.

Still, much of the spending coming from Washington, D.C. since Biden became president has also produced many of the programs in Indiana that state officials - Republicans - regularly tout.

That includes $500 million for Gov. Eric Holcomb's READI program, an economic development initiative; greater broadband connectivity and telehealth expansion; rental assistance for Hoosiers in need; body cameras for state and local police; and most recently, lowering prescription drug prices for seniors.

So, how does Young decry that spending when his fellow Hoosier Republicans celebrate what they're able to do with that money?

"We don't need to spend $2 trillion in order to come up with the $2 million that is actually effective," Young said. "One of the challenges we have with this administration is it seems that about the only policy play they know is to appropriate more money, a lot more money for things, without first exploring how we can reduce the cost of those things by deregulating, by increasing competition between market providers."

Sceniak said many of those programs are laudable. But he said they should be handled by state and local governments, where he said there's greater accountability.

"Whenever we take it to Washington, then we have to fight for it back. There's a lot of wasted spending in there and that's how we get a lot of pork bills and that side of things," Sceniak said. "So, absolutely those things are good things but we have to look at where they should come from.

To combat inflation, Young and Sceniak want to go further than just reducing spending. The Republican incumbent said it will also require deregulation, particularly in the housing sector. And he'd like to see the Biden administration help ease supply chain issues.

"There are some inputs in our economy that, from time to time, cannot be sourced domestically," Young said. "In those cases, we need to reduce the tariffs on those items."

Sceniak points to the Jones Act, a U.S. lawfrom 1920 that restricts shipping between U.S. ports to American ships – U.S. built, U.S. citizen-owned and registered in the United States. Sceniak wants it repealed.

"So, the idea is is that there's so many laws and restrictions, that we could actually make it easier to import goods within our own system," Sceniak said. "And so, just repealing these laws to make it easier for trade is absolutely essential for our economy."

McDermott won't shy away from discussing inflation. But he would rather talk about abortion rights.

“If I were Todd Young, I'd be trying to run away from the fact that he confirmed three of the justices to the Supreme Court as well," McDermott said. "He doesn't want to lose on Nov. 8, and his track record is this: he put three of the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned Roe vs. Wade.”

McDermott is clear: guaranteeing abortion rights is a top priority.

Young sidesteps the issue. He won’t say whether he personally supports Indiana’s near-total abortion ban – only that the state legislature is the right place for such questions to be decided.

“We need to allow the people of the respective states to continue to work their will to perfect their state’s laws … and so, that is my position," Young said. "That will remain my position.”

Pressed if he’d really vote against a national ban for states’ rights reasons, Young said everyone knows he has a “pro-life” – that is, anti-abortion – record.

In a 2016 candidate survey, Young told Indiana Right to Life he supported an abortion ban with no exceptions, even if the life of the pregnant person were at risk. And in 2015, when he was in the U.S. House, he voted for a nationwide 20-week abortion ban.

Sceniak also described himself as pro-life, but takes a different angle on the abortion question.

“We have to look at the heart of the issue, we have to look at the economy, look at contraceptives, look at the issues of women's health," Sceniak said. "And so, when we address all these issues, especially contraception and making them more available over the counter, we can naturally reduce abortion rates.”

Sceniak said abortion bans don't work. But when asked whether he’d vote for a national abortion ban, Sceniak said the wording of the bill would make the difference, particularly for exceptions like the life of the pregnant person.

The overturning of longstanding abortion rights has put other rights largely secured by U.S. Supreme Court decisions under the microscope – perhaps chief among them, same-sex marriage.

Young dismissed the idea that same-sex marriage rights could be at risk, calling it settled law.

But abortion rights were also considered settled law until this year's Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. And Justice Clarence Thomas's opinion in that case said the decision that cemented same-sex marriage rights should be revisited.

Young noted that the other eight justices didn't sign on to that Thomas opinion.

McDermott said the issue can't be waved away so easily.

"I think Indiana's U.S. senator should do everything that can to protect same-sex marriages because there's hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers that are involved in same-sex marriages," McDermott said. "And I want to fight for them just like I want to fight for women."

On other issues, like immigration, all three candidates largely agree on what the country needs. McDermott is light on the specifics of immigration reform, but said it's necessary. And he said it needs to be backed with strengthened border security - with an emphasis on the border patrol.

Sceniak said much the same – border security must be enhanced, which he thinks is best supported with allowing a greater influx of immigrants legally into the country.

Young said border security must include physical structures – fencing or walls – that help the border patrol focus on highly trafficked areas. And he said the legal immigration system should be re-prioritized.

"I think that our immigration reform should be focused less on countries or regions, less on extended family structures and more on the needs of our labor market," Young said.

But again, the candidates don’t agree on where the blame belongs for the country's current immigration issues.

Young said the Biden administration has failed to adequately address the problem.

“It’s unconscionable what’s happening," Young said. "This is resulting in the loss of lives; it’s resulting in human trafficking.”

McDermott turned it back on the incumbent, noting again that Young has served in Congress for 12 years.

“And I find it ironic that Todd Young, now, that’s one of the top issues he campaigns on is the border and the broken immigration system,” McDermott said.

Sceniak’s response encapsulates the heart of his campaign: he said it’s time to look outside the two major parties for answers.

“This is an issue that the Democrats and the Republicans have both failed on," Sceniak said. "And they just keep pointing the wand back and forth and blaming the other side. But the reality is, neither of them have come up with solutions.”

Young, as both an incumbent and a Republican, has built-in advantages that make his re-election the safest bet. But whether he wins or loses, the election results will likely tell us a lot about what Hoosier voters cared about most when casting their ballots.

Contact reporter Brandon at bsmith@ipbs.org or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5.

Brandon Smith has covered the Statehouse for Indiana Public Broadcasting for more than a decade, spanning three governors and a dozen legislative sessions. He's also the host of Indiana Week in Review, a weekly political and policy discussion program seen and heard across the state. He previously worked at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri and WSPY in Plano, Illinois. His first job in radio was in another state capitol - Jefferson City, Missouri - as a reporter for three stations around the Show-Me State.