INDIANAPOLIS — In the coming days or weeks, Mitch Daniels will make a decision about whether to return to politics by running for the Senate seat Mike Braun is vacating to seek the open governor seat.
After serving as White House budget director, then two terms as Indiana governor followed by a decade at the helm of Purdue, where he froze tuition for a decade (saving families $1 billion), raised billions of dollars and ignited a research corridor on the west side of campus, Daniels appears poised for a Senate run where he could redefine conservatism after the era of Donald Trump.
If Daniels runs in this 2024 cycle race, he will likely face U.S. Rep. Jim Banks. The Columbia City Republican had predicted a GOP tsunami last spring, but after that gusher was reduced to a trickle in November, this ambitious lawmaker has been on a demolition derby course.
He had flirted with a run for governor, but deferred to Sen. Braun when the latter declared for that open seat in November. He dabbled in U.S. House leadership in December and early January, losing a whip race to Rep. Tom Emmer, and then received a vote for speaker during his ally Kevin McCarthy’s tortured 15-ballot squeaker.
Then late last week with a toxic blast of political rectal gas, Rep. Banks signaled he would enter the brewing 2024 U.S. Senate race. Teaming up with Club for Growth President David McIntosh, the pair did something we’ve never seen before: Running a preemptive TV ad designed to keep a rival — Mitch Daniels — out of the race.
The same Mitch Daniels who never ran a negative TV ad during his two gubernatorial runs in which he defeated an incumbent Democrat, and then recorded a landslide reelect on the same day Barack Obama carried Indiana’s 11 Electoral College votes in 2008.
But in the eyes of Club for Growth, a PAC of billionaires, it said in the TV ad, “After 50 years in big government, big pharma and big academia, Mitch Daniels forgot how to fight. An old guard Republican clinging to the old ways of the bad old days.”
Long-time GOP operative Mark Lubbers responded to the Club for Growth TV ad, telling me, “These are the same people who cost us Republican control of the Senate. Sad to see that Banks has thrown in with them.”
The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board weigh in: “It’s bewildering to see the Club for Growth, whose reason for being is promoting growth economics, smack a politician for working in private industry at Eli Lilly. Even more odd is the higher-ed slam: He stepped down at the end of 2022 as the most successful college president in the country.”
According to Lubbers, Daniels and Banks had a phone conversation on a recent Saturday and, reportedly, Daniels did not attempt to dissuade Rep. Banks from making a Senate bid. “Apparently they think it’s political genius to poke the bear with a sharp stick,” Lubbers said. “We’ll see how that works.”
Donald J. Trump Jr., then tweeted on Jan. 13: “The establishment is trying to recruit weak RINO Mitch Daniels to run for US Senate in Indiana. The same Mitch Daniels who agreed with Joe Biden that millions of MAGA Republicans are supposedly a danger to the country & trying to ‘subvert democracy.’ He would be Mitt Romney 2.0.”
This was the first time anyone had described Daniels as a “weak RINO.”
Lubbers responded to Trump the younger: “You think the progressive left needs to be fought; we think it needs to be BEATEN. That requires optimistic positive conservatism that builds majorities, wins elections & makes policy. Not just foaming at the mouth, counting tweets, and grifting contributions. Hit the road.”
So, what are the chances of a “U.S. Sen. Mitch Daniels?”
The two strongest Hoosier political dynasties in the last 30 years have been run by Democrat Evan Bayh and Daniels. It was Daniels, along with then-Republican Chairman Eric Holcomb, who created the modern GOP dynasty.
Watching his 2004 and 2008 gubernatorial campaigns, what became clear was Daniels’s strategic, tactical and messaging strengths. As a retail campaigner, he was without peer. We have seen this persist while at the helm of Purdue University this past decade.
As for the “strongest” president of Daniels’s life, the answer would probably be his former boss, President Reagan, who repeatedly promoted his “11th Commandment: Thou shalt not criticize another Republican.”
Having said that, Evan Bayh was once considered invincible, but he lost the 2016 U.S. Senate race 52-42% to Sen. Todd Young. You can be the right candidate, but in the wrong race at the wrong time.
That is a key question for Mitch Daniels: Is this the right race at the right time?
Banks, too, will cite his patriotic duty to save America, all while embracing Donald Trump, who since helping kick away another Senate GOP majority last November, has dined with a neo-Nazi, expressed solidarity with the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, and called for the termination of the U.S. Constitution so he could be “restored” to power after losing in 2020 by seven million votes.
If this race is enjoined and fought, it could define the coming political era in Indiana as well as the nation.
The columnist is managing editor of Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs at StateAffairs.com/pro/Indiana. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.
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