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American Crossroads Turns Its Attention To Senate Races

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is an understatement to describe this fall's presidential campaign as unpredictable. Whatever happens, though, Republicans want to be sure they are at least able to hold onto the Senate.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And as Indiana picks presidential candidates tomorrow, commercials there are also pressing voters to think of their Senate choices.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Deadly ISIS attacks in Paris and Brussels, terrorists gun down Americans - the threat is real. And where's Marlin Stutzman on security? He voted against funding homeland security and our troops fighting terrorists.

INSKEEP: That's an ad slamming Marlin Stutzman, a Republican member of the House looking for a promotion to the Senate. We're not going to get into the merits of the charges there. We are going to get into how the group paying for the ad thinks. Stutzman is under attack by American Crossroads whose leader, Steven Law, has been thinking about Indiana.

STEVEN LAW: That's a state that we would expect to be competitive in, but we want to make sure that we get a candidate that, frankly, we don't have to worry about when it comes time to fight that general election contest.

INSKEEP: Indiana is a state where the GOP lost a Senate seat in 2012, nominating a candidate that political pros viewed as too conservative. Law argues that should not happen again.

LAW: You have two congressmen - Todd Young and Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, and we're supporting Todd Young.

INSKEEP: Why?

LAW: We think Todd Young is the kind of candidate who has experience in reaching a broad plurality of voters. He's got a very, very good track record on issues that Indianans care about. Marlin Stutzman...

INSKEEP: Hoosiers, by the way - I think people listening in Indiana will want you to say...

LAW: Yeah, exactly.

INSKEEP: ...Hoosiers, but go right on. Go right on.

LAW: Right (laughter). And Marlin Stutzman, I think, has been a less distinguished leader in the Congress. He comes from a very, very safe district. There's obviously nothing wrong with that, but it means that he is less talented at being able to appeal to a broader cross-section of voters when it comes to a general election.

INSKEEP: Oh, let's think about this. The guy you support comes from the 9th Congressional District, Southern Indiana. I think it has elected Democrats in the past, hasn't it? So this is a swing kind of district.

LAW: It is. It's one that leans Republican, but, you know, he's had experience defeating the person who is the chosen Democratic candidate in this case, Baron Hill. He knows how to win those kinds of races. And even though Indiana is a lean-Republican state, the upstate - the more industrial part of the state - can make it tough sometimes for Republicans if you're not able to have a broad cross-section of appeal. So in our view, there's a pretty clear choice here.

INSKEEP: I can see some base Republican voter listening to you talking and saying, as people do sometimes say, well, you're going for the RINO - the Republican in name only - against a true conservative. What do you say to that?

LAW: Well, I think Todd Young is every inch a conservative. I mean, he is a Hoosier conservative right down the line, supports traditional conservative Republican Party values on things like Obamacare and spending and regulation, and as well as national defense, where he's carved out, we think, a pretty impressive role already.

INSKEEP: When you get involved in a primary, is there a risk that you yourself become an issue for the guy you're supporting? His opponent can say, look, this guy's the establishment guy. He's got the establishment behind him. He's got all that Washington money.

LAW: Well, I'm perfectly happy to be the issue. I don't think most people care about who I am or who the organization is. They're interested in the facts, hopefully that we're presenting accurately and in a compelling way. We think that's what ends up telling the story and what voters decide on in the end.

INSKEEP: This is an interesting challenge, though. I wonder if this has changed in recent years. In 2006, Republicans were in trouble. George W. Bush was unpopular. And Republican congressional leaders said, we're running local races. It's about local issues. That's all people really care about. And it turned out, no, they were hit by a national wave. In 2010, the same thing happened to Democrats. Is it harder in this environment to avoid that national conversation?

LAW: You know, the answer is it depends. At least at this stage of the game, Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. I don't think she's a wave candidate. I don't think she is going to be compelling enough vis-a-vis, you know, Donald Trump or whomever else to be able to generate that kind of weight.

The truth of the matter is that voters don't really like either choice. What that suggests is you could see a lot of ticket splitting. You could see a lot of people hedging bets. You could see, for example, people finally voting to give Hillary Clinton the keys to the car, but voting for a Republican down-ticket to be the, you know - the driving instructor in the seat with the foot on the emergency brake because they're concerned about where she would take the country.

INSKEEP: How vital is it to you as a Republican that your party hold the Senate?

LAW: We think it's absolutely critical for several reasons. One is, obviously, if we don't win the White House, it's the critical check on nominating power, especially for the Supreme Court, where we could see, for the first time since Richard Nixon, a liberal majority in the Supreme Court. That is a game-changing event in the future direction of our country, so that's very important.

And then the other thing is, in 2014, we were a part - not the critical part, but a small part - of helping to elect one of the strongest classes of new Republican senators that we've seen, certainly, in my political career. And a lot of them are going to be the future political leaders on the Republican side. They're going to define not only what the Republican Party is, but who the Republican Party is.

And from our perspective, it's really important that they be allowed to continue to be in leadership, to shine, to move the agenda so that down the road - five, 10, 15 years - you're going to see their names on gubernatorial ballots and even, ultimately, the presidential election line.

INSKEEP: Steven Law, thanks for coming by.

LAW: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: He's the CEO of the conservative super PAC American Crossroads. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.