Mitch Daniels draws the wrath of Trump supporters as he ponders Senate bid

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Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., 73, has faced decades of political struggles as a staffer, strategist, White House official and Indiana governor. Now, after a 10-year hiatus when he was president of Purdue University, he’s considering returning to politics. His interest in a Senate campaign in 2024 has already caused an uproar within the ailing 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 is not afraid to say unpopular things, whether to voters at large or to fellow Republicans . This quality comes at a price, but he does not shy away from political conflicts.

Tax issues have long been the main driver of his political ideology. If he decides to run for the Senate, his candidacy will test whether there is still an appetite for his brand of politics in a Republican Party transformed and distorted by ex-President Donald Trump. If elected, his mission will be to win the battle for his party’s future.

A dozen years ago, he explored a presidential bid that would have relied on sounding the alarm about what he called a “new red menace” of fiscal dangers to the country’s well-being, only to decide against it primarily for family reasons the White House.

The Fix: Mitch Daniels and what could have been

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

Indiana is a reliably red state whoever wins the Republican nomination the primary strongly favors entering the Senate in early 2025. But the taste 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 2012 primary to former Vice President Mike Pence, who served as Member of the House of Representatives and as governor embodied a sharper conservatism based on cultural and social issues.

Daniels served at times as Lugar’s chief of staff, beginning in that office before Banks was born. Pence, meanwhile, is trying to navigate his political future following a split from Trump following the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.

Pence’s high-wire act on January 6: assuming his role as he courts Trump voters

Banks is a Trump ally and someone who backed Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in his recent ground fight for the House Speaker. Banks said he would face opposition from “radical Democrats and spineless Republicans” in his Senate campaign.

At 43, a generation younger than Daniels, his temperament and ideology represents a new generation of far-right conservatives. He will seek Trump’s formal support in the race, but in the meantime he has garnered the support of the Club for Growth, a conservative group that long ago listed Daniels as a member of its board.

The prospect of Daniels, who remains politically popular in his state, prompting the Club for Growth to produce an online video that sharply portrayed Daniels as “an old-guard Republican stuck in the old ways of the… bad old days” is attacked. The video accuses him of being a big government donor and a tax hike governor. His allies say that as governor he passed the biggest tax cut in the state’s history.

Rep. Jim Banks, a Trump ally, announces a bid for the US Senate in Indiana

Alongside the Club for Growth, Daniels also drew an attack from Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted Jan. 13: “The establishment is trying to recruit the weak RINO Mitch Daniels to run for the US Senate in Indiana. The same Mitch Daniels who agreed with Joe Biden that millions of MAGA Republicans allegedly pose a threat to the country and are trying to “undermine democracy.” He would be Mitt Romney 2.0.” Daniels had previously said he agreed that the Trump wing of the party was trying to undermine democracy, as President Biden accused during the mid-term campaign.

Don Jr’s tweet drew a reply from Mark Lubbers, a longtime confidante of Daniels. “Jr,” he replied, “you think the progressive left needs to be fought; we think it needs to be BEAT. This requires an optimistic, positive conservatism that creates majorities, wins elections and makes politics. Not just foaming at the mouth, counting tweets and grinning posts. get on your way.”

All of this happens before Daniels decides if he will even walk. That decision could come within the next week or two.

Again, family considerations could prompt Daniels to stay out of the running. The prospect of a clash with Trump and the GOP’s Trump wing is unlikely to keep him on the sidelines, according to allies. Other names have been mentioned as possible candidates, but if Daniels takes over it could go head-to-head with Banks. On Friday, Daniels declined a request for an interview about his reasoning.

Lubbers said in an email exchange that some strategists may see early opposition to Daniels as potentially damaging if he runs. He said he disagreed. “It encourages and elevates all reason [Daniels] consider this: bring back constructive conservatism to dominance in our party,” he wrote.

A race between Daniels and Banks would be waged as Trump’s populist wing of the party against the establishment wing, and there is some truth to that. But while Daniels rose through the ranks of what is now considered the GOP establishment through his personality and instincts, he is not pure establishment.

“It’s not at all about populist conservatives versus mainstream republicanism,” 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 do 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 launch “one of the biggest entitlement programs in a generation” as budget director in President George W. Bush’s administration. The entitlement program he was attacked for is the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which has been, and still is, very popular. Will Republicans who oppose Daniels call for his elimination?

The 2024 Senate card is a GOP dream. But the candidate strength is unclear.

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

“There’s an old saying that war is too important to be left to the generals,” he told me in Spring 2020. “Everyone uses the war analogy for that. Then it is too important to leave it entirely to the epidemiologists. The trade-off problem is paramount.”

The Club for Growth attacked Daniels for allowing a spending spree during the Bush administration, a charge embraced by many right-wingers who have never forgiven Bush for some of the spending he made. But while serving as Bush’s budget director, Daniels earned the nickname “The Blade” for his instinct to find places to cut spending.

For many years Daniels has spoken openly about what he once dubbed “the new red menace,” the ocean of red ink that he said threatens the country’s future. More than a decade ago, he warned that the country’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 a compromise with Democrats may be needed to address this threat. “If the best way is blocked… then someone has to find the second best way,” he said in a 2011 speech. “Or the third, for the survival of the nation requires it. Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers.”

He still sees the fiscal threat that nearly dragged him into the 2012 presidential campaign, but he also sees another: Trump’s takeover of the party.

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