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Mitch Daniels tests Senate run in Indiana, drawing fire from Trump world

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/21/2023 Dan Balz
Mitch Daniels stepped down as president of Purdue University at the end of last year. © Darron Cummings/AP Mitch Daniels stepped down as president of Purdue University at the end of last year.

At 73, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. has been through decades of political battles as a staffer, strategist, White House official and governor of Indiana. Now, after a 10-year hiatus in which he served as president of Purdue University, he is mulling a political reentry. His interest in a Senate campaign in 2024 has already sparked uproar inside the troubled Republican Party.

Daniels, known as Mitch, is a traditional conservative, a Reagan Republican (he served in the Reagan White House) with an iconoclastic gene. He has not been afraid to say unpopular things, whether to voters at large or to fellow Republicans. That trait has come at a cost, but he does not shrink from political conflict.

Fiscal issues long have been the main driver of his political ideology. If he decides to run for the Senate, his candidacy will test whether there is still any appetite for his kind of politics in a Republican Party that has been transformed and distorted by former president Donald Trump. If he is elected, it will be his mission to win the battle for the future of his party.

A dozen years ago, he explored a presidential run, one that would have been grounded in sounding alarms about what he called a “new red menace” of fiscal dangers to the country’s well-being, only to decide primarily for family reasons not to seek the White House.

The Fix: Mitch Daniels and what could have been

The Senate seat will be open in 2024, as the current occupant, Mike Braun, is running for Indiana governor, the position Daniels held from 2005 to 2013. Republican Rep. Jim Banks, who recently lost a race for House Republican whip, has announced his intention to seek Braun’s seat.

Indiana is a reliably red state, so whoever wins the Republican nomination in the primary will be heavily favored to end up in the Senate in early 2025. But the flavor of Indiana conservatism has changed significantly over the years, from the days of Richard Lugar, who served six terms in the Senate until his conservative pragmatism cost him the primary in 2012, to former vice president Mike Pence, who as a member of the House and as governor embodied a sharper-edged conservatism grounded in cultural and social issues.

Daniels, who is a contributing columnist to The Post’s Opinion section, served at one point as Lugar’s chief of staff, starting in that office before Banks was born. Pence, meanwhile, is trying to navigate his political future after a breakup with Trump following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Pence’s Jan. 6 tightrope: Owning his role while courting Trump voters

Banks is an ally of Trump and someone who supported Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in his recent floor battle for the House speakership. Banks has said he will be opposed in his Senate campaign by “radical Democrats and spineless Republicans.”

At 43, he is a generation younger than Daniels and represents by temperament and ideology a new breed of hard-right conservatives. He will be seeking Trump’s formal support in the race, but in the meantime, he has won the endorsement of the Club for Growth, a conservative group that long ago listed Daniels as a member of its board.

The prospect of a candidacy by Daniels, who remains politically popular in his state, prompted the Club for Growth to produce an online video sharply attacking Daniels as “an old guard Republican clinging to the old ways of the bad old days.” The video slams him for being a big-government spender and a tax-raising governor. His allies say that as governor he engineered the biggest tax cut in the state’s history.

Rep. Jim Banks, a Trump ally, announces bid for U.S. Senate in Indiana

In addition to the Club for Growth, Daniels also drew an attack from Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted on Jan. 13: “The establishment is trying to recruit weak RINO Mitch Daniels to run for U.S. 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.” Daniels earlier had said he agreed that the Trumpian wing of the party was trying to subvert democracy, as President Biden charged during the midterm campaign.

The tweet from Don Jr. drew a response from Mark Lubbers, a longtime Daniels confidant. “Jr.,” he replied, “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.”

All this is happening before Daniels decides if he will even run. That decision could come within the next week or two.

Family considerations again could prompt Daniels to stay out of the race. The prospect of a clash with Trump and the Trump wing of the GOP likely will not keep him on the sidelines, according to allies. Other names have been mentioned as possible candidates, but if Daniels runs, it could end up as a head-to-head contest with Banks. On Friday, Daniels declined a request for an interview about his deliberations.

Lubbers, in an email exchange, said that some strategists might see the early opposition to Daniels as potentially damaging if he runs. He said he disagrees. “It advances and elevates the whole reason [Daniels] is considering this: to restore constructive conservatism to dominance in our party,” he wrote.

A race between Daniels and Banks would be cast as the Trumpian populist wing of the party against the establishment wing, and there is some truth to that. But while Daniels has risen through the ranks of what is now seen as the GOP establishment, by personality and instinct, he is not purely an establishmentarian.

“It’s not about populist conservatives versus establishment Republicanism at all,” Lubbers said. “It’s about those of us — and Mitch is the best, period — who have firm conservative views [and] understand where those views come from — and then doing the hard work of building coalitions, winning elections and governing.”

The Club for Growth video attacks Daniels for proposing tax increases as governor and for helping to launch “one of the largest entitlement programs in a generation” as budget director in the administration of President George W. Bush. That entitlement program for which he was attacked is the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which was and is highly popular. Will Republicans opposing Daniels call for its elimination?

2024 Senate map is a GOP dream. But candidate strength is unsettled.

As governor and as a university president, he was willing to challenge orthodoxy. As president of Purdue, he was an early skeptic of lockdown recommendations during the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s the old saying that war’s too important to be left to the generals,” he told me in the spring of 2020. “Everyone is using the war analogy for this. Then it’s too important to be left entirely to the epidemiologists. The trade-off problem is front and center.”

The Club for Growth attacked Daniels for allowing a spending spree during the Bush administration, a charge embraced by many on the hard right, who have never forgiven Bush for some of the spending he undertook. But when he served as Bush’s budget director, Daniels earned the nickname “The Blade” for his instincts in finding places to cut spending.

Daniels has been outspoken for many years about what he once called “the new red menace,” the ocean of red ink that he said threatens the future of the country. More than a decade ago, he warned that the nation’s fiscal problems were so severe that conservatives should call a truce in battles over social and cultural issues to focus on the fiscal threat.

He also said that compromise with Democrats might be required to meet that threat. “Should the best way be blocked … then someone will need to find the second-best way,” he said in a speech in 2011. “Or the third, because the nation’s survival requires it. Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers.”

He still sees the fiscal threat that almost drew him into the 2012 presidential campaign, but he sees another as well: the Trump takeover of the party.

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