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Is Mitch Daniels a good fit for the Senate? He’s trying to figure that out

The Hill logo The Hill 1/25/2023 Al Weaver
© Provided by The Hill

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct when Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) spoke to Daniels about a possible run.

Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) made a pilgrimage to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to meet with senators as he continues to weigh whether to take the plunge into the Indiana Senate race and resume a role in political life he has largely eschewed in recent years.

Daniels, the former two-term governor who recently wrapped up a decade serving as president of Purdue University, met with a number of GOP lawmakers and held a 45-minute sit-down with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

In a brief interview with The Hill, Daniels said that he plans to make a decision “shortly” on a bid to succeed Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) but is uncertain on a return to public life.

Daniels, 73, said he’s spent “much more time out of public life than in it.”

“I’ve always had action jobs, so I’ve always had great admiration and respect for people who follow the legislative path, but it’s not something I’ve done or, frankly, seen myself doing,” he added.

“I’m just testing all that now because I’ve been asked to. People I admire have asked me to think about it, so I’m thinking.”

If he chooses to run, Daniels would likely have to battle Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and potentially others in a primary.

The GOP has struggled to convince governors to take the plunge; in the last campaign cycle, Senate Republicans failed to recruit to three governors — New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), former Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R).

All three indicated that they did not think they could make a difference in Washington compared to their positions as state executives. Sununu went so far as to directly blame the pitch Senate Republicans made to him, which centered on obstructing President Biden’s work until a Republican potentially wins the White House in 2024.

Republicans arguably ended up with weaker nominees in New Hampshire and Arizona who lost, helping Democrats retain their majority. 

“People have been honest and open, and that’s what I was hoping they’d do. They’d tell me about what they enjoy about it, what’s occasionally difficult about it,” Daniels said of his meetings.

He told reporters earlier in the day that Wednesday’s discussions were centered around the “life of a senator” and the possibility of winning “and regretting it for 6 years.”

Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who Daniels met with earlier in the day, told The Hill that Daniels “seemed uncertain” about a bid. 

“He’s genuinely and sincerely trying to figure out whether he wants to spend a year and a half auditioning for the job and six years in the job. He’s asking a lot of questions about the job itself,” Young said, adding that he’s “undecided — but very interested.” 

The winner in 2024 will replace Braun, who, ironically, is running for the governor’s mansion in Indianapolis. Braun said that while he keeps in contact with Daniels, he did not meet with him on Wednesday and questioned whether he would enjoy serving in the Senate at this point in his career.

“As an entrepreneur and someone who has a metabolism rate that has to be at least minimally satisfied, this place is probably not the place to do it,” Braun said with a laugh, referring to himself. “The movers and shakers in this country are probably staying in the governor’s mansions and running businesses, and you can see the results here. They speak for themselves.”

A number of former governors serving in the upper chamber believe Daniels would be an ideal fit.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who served as Massachusetts governor from 2003 until 2007, said he has previously spoken with Daniels about a possible run and that he would make a “terrific candidate.”

A Democrat, Sen. John Hickenlooper (Colo.), a two-term governor of his state, also offered a case for any governor, like Daniels, to run for the Senate.

He noted that the Senate has had some bipartisan legislative successes that could convince former governors to run, including the infrastructure bill, gun safety reform, a children’s health insurance bill and the codification of same-sex marriage.

“Maybe our success here the last couple of years is going to attract more governors. The experience of being a governor is directly applicable,” Hickenlooper said in an interview.

“I think he is someone who is driven by a desire — almost a need — to serve,” he said of Daniels. “My guess is that he’ll look at it and think, ‘yeah, I was so cynical and hated it.’ He has great social skills. He’s a talented manager, obviously a very successful governor, but he also is a visionary and is capable of bringing people together and building these constituencies around specific issues, which is what this building is all about.” 

Hickenlooper was vocal about his lukewarm interest in running during the 2020 cycle given his gubernatorial past. However, he has changed his tune, saying that his time in the Senate has been “tremendously fulfilling.” 

“In every phase it has exceeded my expectations,” he said. 

To get to Washington, Daniels would face at least one formidable foe in Banks, who is backed by the Club for Growth — essentially set up a proxy war for the Republican Party between establishment figures and pro-Trump forces that got nasty even before Banks announced his campaign last week. 

Another Senate Republican said Daniels would fit in well in the upper chamber, but that it wouldn’t be free of consternation. 

“This is a case of where you have to go into it with your eyes wide open, recognizing you’re going to be frustrated. And that you do this because you’ve had the greatest job in the world, and now it’s payback,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), a former governor, told The Hill with a laugh. “This is what you give back.” 

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