Conservatives from Indiana to Washington, D.C., slept a little less soundly Tuesday night after the surprise announcement by Sen. Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, that he would not seek re-election in 2016.
With Coats becoming the first Republican senator up for election next year to say he was retiring, they fear, the stage is set for a potentially divisive GOP primary next May.
Should at least two well-known conservative U.S. representatives battle for votes among "tea partiers" and others on the Republican right, Hoosier Democrats may just have a chance to have another of their own serving with Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly.
No sooner had Coats, 71, made his announcement than speculation focused on Reps. Marlin Stutzman and Todd Rokita — both solid conservatives in their third terms — as potential candidates.
Five years ago, then-State Sen. Stutzman lost a three-candidate primary for the Senate nod to Coats — only to have his career unexpectedly resurrected that year with nomination and election to the House after the resignation of a scandal-tinged incumbent.
A family farmer who champions removing the food stamp program from the farm bill, Stutzman, 38, made headlines in January as the only Indiana GOP House member to oppose Speaker John Boehner's re-election.
"It's two hours into it [the Senate race], so who knows?" Stutzman said. "My Blackberry’s already dead."
Before Rokita came to the House in 2010, he served two terms as Indiana’s secretary of state and made headlines as the principal author of one of the nation’s first voter I.D. laws (which was argued before the Supreme Court and upheld). In Congress, he has voted against lifting the debt ceiling and argued that major spending cuts and reforms must be made as a quid pro quo for increasing the national debt.
"This is a time to reflect on Sen. Coats’ great service, and Rep. Rokita wants to respect that," Rokita spokesman Tom Borck said on Wednesday, "As vice chairman of the [House] Budget Committee, he is completely focused on ensuring the successful passage of the Congress’ most important annual bill. He and [wife] Kathy will be weighing how best to serve Indiana in the future."
With the filing deadline Feb. 28 of next year, two other GOP House members — sophomore Jackie Walorski and three-termer Todd Young — are reportedly considering the Senate race. Both are considered strong conservatives, but not as identified with the tea party and the conservative movement as much as Stutzman and Rokita. Also reportedly eyeing a Senate bid is state House Speaker Brian Bosma.
State Sen. Mike Delph — former Army intelligence officer and shepherd of former GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels’ road improvement program — said he was exploring a Senate race as well.
If Democrats had their way, former two-term Gov. and Sen. (1998-2010) Evan Bayh would make a comeback and win the seat with ease. Bayh boosters note that Indiana has a history of electing senators with split terms.
Coats, for example, served from 1988 until his retirement a decade later, and returned to win his current term in 2010. Fellow Republican Sen. William Jenner served from 1944 to 1945, then came back to serve from 1946 to 1958.
But observers of state politics also note that Bayh left Congress voicing distaste for the partisanship, and has lived in Washington since.
"Former Sen. Bayh is too self-centered to inconvenience himself with moving back to Indiana and trying to figure out that South Bend is in the North and North Vernon is in the South," veteran Hoosier Republican consultant Chris Faulkner told Newsmax.
After Bayh, the Democrats are down to their "B-team:" former Rep. Baron Hill, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott, Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, or former House Speaker John Gregg, who was badly beaten for governor by Republican Mike Pence in 2012.
Democrats may also give their Senate standard to an attractive unknown as a way of providing exposure for a future, more winnable race. One possibility along those lines is state Rep. Christina Hale, formerly a top executive with the Kiwanis International.
For now, as pundits and pols accept that the venerable Coats is leaving, most of the speculation is over what Republicans will do and whether conservatives will wage a holy war against each other.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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