There’s more at stake than just a safe red seat. After midterm voters rebuked several Trump-leaning candidates in November, the GOP is wrestling with its identity.
The party is caught between two seemingly irreconcilable factions: a base animated by populist and provocative Trumpism, and influential independent and suburban voters. Indiana’s primary will be a major marker of where the GOP ends up regardless of Daniels running. In a way, the race has already begun, with Daniels already facing attacks from a wealthy outside group.
And it’s already clear where the fault lines would lie in a match between Daniels and Banks. While Daniels called for a “truce” on social issues more than a decade ago, Banks is a combative culture warrior who says Daniel’s perspective on problems has gone completely out of fashion in the Republican Party.
In the interview, he argued that social and cultural hot-button issues “are more important than they’ve ever been in my life.” He vows to block schools from teaching critical race theory, a framework that examines how racism has become entrenched in American institutions that most public schools refuse, and urges blocking transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports.
“I will never call for a truce on social or cultural issues,” Banks said, noting that Hoosiers are “looking for a fighter in the United States Senate,” not someone who would call for a truce.
Known for his sarcasm and lopsided smile, the 43-year-old Navy Reserve officer and former state congressman has risen steadily through the GOP and forged close ties with Speaker Kevin McCarthy over the years and chaired the conservative Republican Study Committee. His bid to become a GOP whip fell through last month, instead channeling his ambitions to the Senate’s best opportunity.
Many Republicans see Banks as a favorite, but allies are taking no chances. The conservative Club for Growth runs ads arguing that Daniels is “not right for Indiana anymore.”
It’s a development that makes the former governor and president of Purdue University more likely to take on Banks, according to Mark Lubbers, a close friend and advisor. He accused Banks of being “up to his eyeballs in the world [Club for Growth] hate campaign.”
“For the sake of my friend Mitch Daniels, I hope he gets out of what these con artists have made of politics,” Lubbers said. “For the sake of my country, I hope Mitch runs and beats Banks to a pulp.”
In an interview, Club for Growth President David McIntosh said he was willing to spend $10 million or more on the race. He compared Daniels to former Gov. Pat McCrory (RN.C.), whom the club relentlessly attacked in North Carolina’s 2022 Senate race. McCrory lost in the primary to Ted Budd, then a House Republican, and Budd won the general election.
“If Mitch decides to run, it will be like North Carolina, where the old Republican approach goes up against the new, more aggressive conservative base. And our donors are ready to do the same,” said McIntosh, himself a former Indiana congressman.
The Republican Party has changed significantly in the 10 years since Daniels left the governorship, leaning more toward Banks’ ideology, particularly when it comes to winning primary candidates. And while Daniels has a strong reputation in the state, moderates don’t exactly dominate the Indiana GOP.
Former Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) lost his 2012 primary to a more conservative rival, who then lost to a Democrat in the general election. This time, most Republicans think the most important thing is the whole ball game.
“I support Jim Banks,” said Rep. Gregory Pence (Bark.). “He’s got the energy, he’s got the conservative honesty.”
Trump’s now shaky stature within the GOP has Banks balancing his ties with the former president, walking a tricky line seeking Trump’s support and praising his past agenda while he is yet to fully embrace his presidential bid. Banks doesn’t blame Trump for the GOP’s underperformance in the midterm elections, but slams the party for not doing more when it last had congressional majorities.
In a private conversation last week, Banks recalled telling Trump: “I would be very happy to have his support if he gave it to me. We’d like to have him come to Indiana to fight with me. He’s very popular.”
Daniels, on the other hand, spoke up when asked about “MAGA Republicans” in September.
Like many rising conservatives, Banks went from voicing reservations about Trump in 2016 to leaning heavily on his relationship with the hard-line president.
He told POLITICO last July before the midterms that he would support Trump as soon as he comes in: “If President Trump runs, he has my support.” He also repeated this view in other media days before the election, but then said on Sunday afterwards told Fox News that he would “save [his] Confirmation for a different location and time for the 2024 race.”
When asked in the POLITICO interview if he would support Trump, Banks said he was “focused on getting the Senate race started and presidential politics will come later.” He similarly disagreed when asked if he would back the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as a GOP leader and called it a “hypothetical”.
And though Braun voted against McConnell for chairman and is one of the most conservative voices in the Senate, his Indiana counterpart takes a different approach. Republican Sen. Death Young last Congress voted for bipartisan marriage equality, gun safety and microchipping laws.
Young will remain neutral in the primary and said Indiana is “fortunate to have a great bank of talented Hoosiers on the Republican side.”
And the field could get more interesting. Former MP Trey Hollingsworth (R-Ind.) could throw his name in the ring, and the second-term MP. Victoria Sparz (R-Ind.) has expressed an interest in the seat.
“I am currently not inclined to do so, but many of my supporters would like me to consider it,” she said. “I don’t worry about who’s in the running.”
However, she could forego the race if Daniels wades into the race, according to two Republicans familiar with the dynamic.
Banks will demonstrate their strength this week and endorsements from reps. pence and Larry Bucschon (Bark.). He is also expected to receive support from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), whom he describes as a model senator. McIntosh said that while the Club for Growth likes banks, it doesn’t have official endorsements yet.
And Banks has a prime seat in the House of Representatives while he’s fighting for the Senate seat, citing the charge of pushing spending cuts amid consideration of the government’s upcoming debt ceiling and funding deadlines. He said his willingness to make such moves will ultimately set him apart whether Daniels makes the leap or not.
“I have one of the most fiscally conservative voting records in the House of Representatives or in the House of Representatives. And we need more of that in the Senate,” Banks said.