Call it Mitch envy.
Shortly after the university announced last Friday he was stepping away from the job he truly loved for the past decade, Purdue President Mitch Daniels’s various text, email and phone inboxes began filling up. Hoosiers were urging Daniels to run for governor, for president, for mayor of Carmel or Indianapolis.
When “Based in Lafayette” journalist Dave Bangert asked the former Indiana governor about his prospects, Daniels responded, “I don’t have any right now.” The key phase was “right now.”
Knowing Mitch Daniels, it’s hard not to think that as he told the Purdue trustees earlier this spring that the “Daniels Decade” was coming to an end, he didn’t have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C developing inside the man that Washington Post columnist George Will described at the 2011 CPAC as “never has there been a higher ratio between mind and mass.”
Daniels had intricately mapped out two terms as governor before taking the oath, and then created the Purdue landing spot once his term ended in 2013.
Informed and reliable sources tell Howey Politics Indiana that the discussion of a Daniels return to the Statehouse Second Floor office has been broached, at least among key allies. Gov. Eric Holcomb is term-limited, creating an open seat in 2024. But one longtime ally told me that he doesn’t expect another Daniels political run … right now.
Indiana has had six two-term governors since 1972 (Doc Bowen, Robert Orr, Evan Bayh, Frank O’Bannon, Daniels and now Holcomb), with Henry Schricker serving as the 36th and 38th governor for one term each during World War II and again in 1949 (Gov. Isaac P. Gray served out the term of Gov. James Williams in 1880 and 1881 and was elected to a full term in 1884). There has never been a three-termer. According to the INGov website updated on Friday, the governor holds the office for four years and can choose to run for reelection. The governor is not eligible to serve more than eight years in any 12-year period.
Daniels was a strong governor between 2005 and 2013, setting in motion the Republican dominance that has resulted in General Assembly super majorities that began in 2014 and continue to this day while labor unions have been weakened. He never ran a negative TV ad during his campaigns, since emulated by Govs. Mike Pence and Holcomb. He was viewed as “transformative” because of his audacious scope (Major Moves, BMV streamlining, and the 2011 educational reforms) and conspicuous use of political capital (like the time he coaxed suburban counties to start a tax that helped build Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis).
As he was leaving the Statehouse in December 2012, Daniels cited the “skills gap” — the needs of high tech employers and not enough available workers – as a goal unfulfilled. “Most of the other factors, we’re pretty good at, you know, cost, infrastructure, taxes and regulatory climate. We’re as good as the competition or better on most of those. We clearly aren’t there with match of skills and jobs,” he told HPI as he was packing up his office.
A week ago, the Indiana Commission on Higher Education released an “alarming” report that just 53% of the class of 2020 going to college, a decline of 6% since 2019 and 12% over the past five years. In his annual letter to the Purdue community earlier this year, Daniels asked, “Where are all the men?” It was a question raised by the decline in male enrollees. So right there is “unfinished business” that the 73-year-old Purdue president might want to have another crack at.
But Daniels’ also told the Lugar Series graduating class a couple of months ago that it was time for a program graduate to become a governor, meaning it’s time for a female governor. Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch is a Lugar Series graduate. “As a member of the Indiana House, I had the privilege of working with Gov. Daniels during his eight years in office,” Crouch said. “Mitch is a great leader and a champion for Hoosiers. Together, we tackled some of the biggest challenges facing our state.”
Currently only Eric Doden has announced for the 2024 gubernatorial race, though U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, Lt. Gov. Crouch, and former state senator Jim Merritt are positioning for a run, while U.S. Sen. Mike Braun and U.S. Rep. Jim Banks are mulling their options. Ditto for Indiana Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer. The most likely Democrat nominee is former senator Joe Donnelly.
Daniels supporters were crushed when he decided not to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. The notion of Daniels appearing on a debate stage with Donald Trump or President Biden in 2023 and 2024 would be a fascinating development. But with the MAGA fever still mostly unabated, it is hard to imagine Daniels finding traction in today’s national cult-like GOP.
There’s another potential job opening in 2024, that of Major League Baseball commissioner. Current Commissioner Rob Manfred’s term ends in two years. If there were to be a perfect landing spot for the former governor, the 10-year president of Purdue, the former White House budget director, it might be above the diamond, where plenty of challenges await.
Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.
Brian Howey: Indiana will await Mitch’s next major move