Since the dawn of the television era in Indiana politics in the mid-1950s, a mere nine white males have been U.S. senators out of the approximately 12 million people who called Indiana home during the period. Those holding one seat included Sens. William Jenner (R), Vance Hartke (D), Dick Lugar (R), and now Joe Donnelly (D). On the other, there have been Sens. Homer Capehart (R), Birch Bayh (D), Dan Quayle (R), Dan Coats (R), Evan Bayh (D), and then Coats once more.
In more than 60 years, there were three “open seats” at the beginning of the cycle when the incumbent did not run, with Jenner in 1958, Coats in 1998 and Evan Bayh in 2010. In Bayh’s case, Coats returned to the public spectrum to win back the seat he gave up a decade earlier. In only one instance, Lugar in 2012, was a sitting senator defeated in a primary. In three cases, Capehart in 1962 to Birch Bayh, Hartke in 1976 to Lugar, and Birch Bayh in 1980 to Quayle, were incumbents defeated in general elections.
In all three open seats, there were overwhelming favorites seeking Senate seats in mid-term elections with Evansville Mayor Hartke riding a Democratic wave in 1958 with 57.5 percent of the vote after Jenner retired to Bedford, popular Gov. Bayh’s ascension in 1998 with 63.7 percent over Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke, and Coats’ return in 2010 with 54.7 percent over U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth.
And throughout this period, there was either a Bayh or a Lugar in the Senate for 50 years (1963-2013). There was only one female nominee, Democrat Jill Long in 1986 who polled 38.5 percent against Quayle, and only one minority, African-American Republican Marvin Scott, who polled 37 percent against Sen. Evan Bayh in 2004.
Facing Hoosier voters in a campaign that kicked off Thursday with Eric Holcomb’s entry is an extraordinary event poised for 2016: An open Senate seat in a presidential election year with no clear favorite.
Sen. Coats’ announcement Tuesday that he was riding off into the sunset comes just four years after Richard Mourdock defeated Lugar in the Republican primary, setting off a $50 million showdown that Donnelly won in November.
With majority control for the Senate at stake in 2016 just two years after Republicans regained power, the specter of a competitive Indiana Senate race, along with a presidential contest that could yield the first female nominee in history, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, and a potential rematch between Gov. Mike Pence and Democrat John Gregg, voters here are in for an absolutely riveting and potentially unpredictable election sequence.
Coats said of his decision, “It has nothing to do with a terribly dysfunctional Senate. It is related to the fact that I had to face the reality of age. There is a seven in front of the next digit. After a campaign and six more years in the Senate, I would be four months shy of 80 years old. There is almost a responsibility to turn it over the responsibility to the next generation.”
The “bench” that appears most likely to enter the Republican race beyond Holcomb appear to be U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, State Sen. Jim Merritt of Indianapolis, and State Sen. Mike Delph of Carmel. Multiple sources are telling me that Reps. Todd Young, Todd Rokita, Susan Brooks and Jackie Walorski are surveying the landscape and weighing bids.
Rokita and Zoeller have won statewide office twice, so they would enter any race with elevated name ID. Others weighing bids at this writing include Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, while others are urging Attorney General Greg Zoeller to weigh a bid. Bosma has been a prodigious fundraiser for more than a decade on behalf of House candidates across the state. He has his hands full until sine die on April 29. If he were to enter, that could completely change the dynamic of any primary race. Zoeller had been planning to seek a third term and is a popular statewide officeholder in GOP circles, willing to wage legal battles on behalf of some of the most coveted social issues coming out of the Indiana General Assembly.
Brooks, Young and Walorski probably have the luxury of taking a wait-and-see look at who emerges in the field before making a decision. With Clinton the potential Democratic nominee, Brooks and Walorski might be weighing a chance to make history here in Indiana.
On the Democratic side, former congressman Baron Hill appears to be the most likely candidate to run in a race that had been largely dormant until the Coats announcement. Hill had been positioning for a gubernatorial run and a contested primary against 2012 nominee John Gregg. But with an open seat, Hill said on his Facebook page Tuesday, “I feel once again the passion to serve and to fight for our future. Therefore, I will strongly consider a bid for the U.S. Senate, and will spend the next coming days in serious discussion with my wife and my daughters, and make a decision soon.”
Former senator Evan Bayh and his $9.9 million war chest look to sit this one out. The rest of us are in for a fascinating race.