Is There Still Room in the G.O.P. for Mitch Daniels?
Back in August, an interviewer stumped Mitch Daniels, a Republican star of yesteryear who is stepping down at the end of this month as president of Purdue University, with a question about how he might fare in the flame-throwing partisan warfare of today.
“Can your brand of conservatism still win in the current environment?” Adam Wren asked in a lengthy interview in Politico Magazine.
“I don’t know,” responded Daniels, who served as governor of Indiana from 2005 to 2013. “I’ve been in isolation and quarantine for 10 years.”
That wasn’t entirely true: Daniels writes a monthly column for The Washington Post, where he has weighed in regularly on national affairs from the perspective of a scholarly, genial conservative. But he has mostly spent the last decade cocooned away from the public arena as the decidedly unscholarly Donald Trump molded the Republican Party in his own image.
And the next part of his answer was intriguing.
“In one way I think about it,” Daniels said, “maybe I haven’t been infected by the viruses that are running around on both sides.”
Daniels, 73, is “fascinated by the idea” of running for office again, his allies have said, and is now weighing a run for the Senate seat that will soon be vacated by Mike Braun, who is running for governor in Indiana.
“I don’t think he feels any urgency to make a quick decision,” said Mark Lubbers, his longtime political guru and friend, confirming recent reporting by Brian Howey, whose column is read widely in Indiana political circles. “But I think it’s definitely serious.”
Daniels is attracted to the idea, Lubbers said, of bringing “sanity” to Washington. “It would be kind of like when Cicero went back to the Roman Senate to provide wisdom.”
Could this be a perfect test of whether old-school Midwestern conservatism still has a place in Republican politics?
“To me, that answer is easy,” said Cam Savage, his former communications director. “It’s yes, and the reason for my confidence is the midterm elections. In August, that was maybe more of an open question.”
Savage, who now runs a political consulting firm, said he had privately explored Daniels’s approval ratings among potential Republican primary voters, and found them to be overwhelmingly positive.
And if a new poll released on Sunday is any indication, Daniels still has plenty of fans. The poll, by Bellwether Research, a firm run by his former pollster, found that 32 percent of registered Republican voters in Indiana preferred the Purdue president over a field of four other potential candidates, including Representative Jim Banks.
When Daniels was governor, Indiana was still a purple state; Barack Obama won it in 2008 before losing it by 10 percentage points four years later.
“It’s only gotten redder and redder since,” said Christine Matthews, who conducted the survey. “The Republicans there got really Trumpy.”
As for Daniels, Matthews said, “he’s not a Jim Banks-style culture warrior.” But he is “his own type of conservative,” she added, “and I think there is a reservoir of respect and good will that remains for him.”
The Daniels brand of conservatism
For those who don’t remember Daniels, he is revered among conservative intellectuals as a principled thought leader within the Republican Party. In the 1980s, he worked for Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana and President Ronald Reagan. After a stint as President George W. Bush’s budget director, he served two terms as governor of Indiana, where he left office with an approval rating in the 60s.
In 2011, as Daniels’s admirers pushed him to run for president against Barack Obama, The New York Times said he was seen in Republican circles as a “fiscally focused, budget-cutting, pragmatic-thinking conservative.” He was known for his ability to disagree without being disagreeable, saying things like, “Grown-ups make trade-offs. Pass the brandy, then let’s get busy” or “purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers.”
Famously, Daniels once called for a “truce” in America’s social wars, drawing a rebuke from a fellow Hoosier: Mike Pence, who was then a member of Congress. In his runs for governor, Daniels refused to run negative campaign ads. He stayed in the private homes of friends and supporters instead of hotels.
But Daniels ultimately decided against a presidential bid, citing family concerns — a story told in excruciating detail in the book “Run, Mitch, Run” — and took the Purdue job instead. There, he beefed up the university’s engineering program, froze tuition and began an ambitious effort to make Purdue a global institution.
Daniels and his office have brushed aside direct questions about his future plans. But Lubbers said that one potential obstacle was no longer an issue: Daniels’s wife, who vetoed a run for president in 2012, does not oppose a Senate bid in 2024.
And that interview with Politico in August was only one hint among several that Daniels might be thinking about a second act in politics. In another interview around the same time, he said he had taken a “vow of political celibacy” at Purdue, but nonetheless made a few observations about the world he left behind a decade ago.
“I think both parties have come to be dominated by their fringe. Extreme left. Extreme right,” Daniels said. He ducked a question about Trump, saying, “I never met him.” And he said he was worried about national debt that had continued to pile up at an “unimaginable rate.”
On Friday, when Daniels appeared on the podcast of Chuck Todd, the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he said that he had not “really thought” about running for office again. But he also predicted that “sooner or later,” somebody would come along who “really wants to start us back on the path toward greater common purpose and unity as a country.”
Could Daniels win?
Daniels would enter the race with considerable advantages, his allies say: near-universal name recognition and fond feelings among voters in Indiana, an ability to instantly raise money and a gravitas that he burnished in his decade at Purdue.
But it would take considerable dexterity for Daniels to navigate a political landscape that has changed radically since he last held public office, with a media ecosystem that looks utterly unlike that of 2012 — with Trump and Trumpism at its core.
For one thing, Daniels’s brand as a frugal Hoosier speaks to just one faction of an increasingly tumultuous Republican Party. When Monmouth University’s polling institute recently asked Republican voters to describe what makes a good Republican, about 20 percent gave answers related to fiscal conservatism. About a quarter sounded themes of patriotism and individual liberties. Another quarter mentioned some version of personal responsibility. And 13 percent gave answers related to religion, moral values and abortion.
If Daniels were to run, he would be entering a Republican field that already looks pretty crowded. Banks is openly considering a bid, as is a colleague in the House, Representative Victoria Spartz. Other possible contenders include Todd Rokita, Indiana’s attorney general, and Representative Trey Hollingsworth, who is stepping down from his seat.
Banks is the best known of the four, and he has an incentive to run after losing his bid for a leadership job in the House. He also gave up his position as chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a large and influential bloc of House conservatives.
Banks is unabashedly pro-Trump. Over three terms in the House, he has labored to position the G.O.P. as a working-class party — a mission he has described as marrying “the core principles of the party of Reagan with the populist platform in the party of Donald Trump.” He has also called on Republicans to aggressively attack Democrats as cultural elitists who are out of touch with working-class values.
It’s still uncertain just how much distance from Trump the G.O.P. base is ready to tolerate. Daniels hasn’t said much about him, though Trump certainly doesn’t seem like his type.
“I don’t think he’s delusional that politics is a full-contact sport,” said Lubbers, who expects Daniels to put more serious thought into running after a golfing trip to Florida in January. “He ain’t no powder puff.”
Matthews, the former Daniels pollster, said she had found growing appetite among Republican primary voters to hear criticism of Trump — but only if it’s done carefully, and accompanied by praise of his policies as president.
“There’s actually much more room to be critical of Trump as a person, but not ‘he was a complete disaster and a criminal,’” Matthews said. “You can say he’s a divisive guy, and Daniels would be really skilled at doing that.”
Correction: This article originally named the wrong senator who is stepping down to run for governor of Indiana. It is Mike Braun, not Mike Rounds, who represents South Dakota.
What to read
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A trial got underway on Monday for Proud Boys defendants who are accused of a central role in the fighting at the Capitol, Alan Feuer reports. The charge of seditious conspiracy is the same as in a recent trial of members of the Oath Keepers militia.
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