Brian Howey

What if U.S. Sen. Dan Coats doesn’t seek reelection in 2016?

In asking that question, the first qualifier is if we had to place a money bet on the question, it would come down firmly on the belief that Coats will seek one more term in the Senate. On Jan. 16, he told Howey Politics Indiana’s Matthew Butler, “I’m working through this, and I think by spring, early spring, I’ll make a decision. I’m weighing all kinds of things in the decision-making process on this. I know I need to make a decision, and I haven’t made a decision yet. I know if I do run again, we have things in place where we can flip the switch. We’re ready to go. We would be ready financially and organizationally.”

If Coats was having second thoughts about running in what would be his fourth Senate race, many observers on Capitol Hill and here in Indiana believe that his move to Senate Finance and his chairing of the Joint Economic Committee will be irresistible sweeteners for a public servant who doesn’t really like some aspects of campaigning.

In his first race in 1990 to complete the term of Vice President Dan Quayle, Coats ran against State Rep. Baron Hill. He ran a second race in 1992 for a full term against Secretary of State Joe Hogsett. Coats decided not to seek re-election in 1998 against then-Gov. Evan Bayh.

When he returned in 2010, it was to challenge Sen. Bayh, who responded with his own bombshell less than a fortnight later, announcing he would not seek a third term. Coats returned to the Senate with an easy win over U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth.

Coats appears in good shape, politically. The Rothenberg/Gonzales Political Report rates the Indiana seat as “safe” Republican, and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball lists it as “likely” GOP. Rothenberg/Gonzales writes, “There are no serious rumblings against Coats in a primary. He had a moderate reputation during his first Senate tenure but successfully learned the Tea Party language and navigated the Republican primary in 2010. Democrats aren’t that interested in Indiana at this point.”

But Coats had a mere $752,000 in his war chest at the end of the third quarter of 2014. At this writing, with less than 10 Republican Lincoln dinners announced thus far, Coats is speaking to four in Lake, Allen, Jackson, and Johnson counties, and several others are in the works. But Coats has made moves that suggest re-election, chief among them the addition of former state Republican chairman Eric Holcomb as his state chief of staff. If there is one lesson from Sen. Lugar’s primary defeat to Richard Mourdock in 2012, it is to keep your home front political organization vibrant.

There may be elements out of the public eye in play that could trump the obvious. So that brings us to the question raised in the lede: If Coats doesn’t run, then who does?

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The quick answer is there is no obvious heir apparent. The 2015 Howey Politics Indiana Power 50 list represents a pecking order within the current Congressional delegation: U.S. Rep. Luke Messer at No. 6, Todd Young at 14, Susan Brooks at 15, Todd Rokita at 18, Larry Bucshon at 26, Jackie Walorski at 27, and Marlin Stutzman at 31.

Messer moved up in dramatic fashion when he won the race for conference policy committee chair, which places him in House Republican leadership. Rokita was just named vice chair of the House Budget Committee, suggesting career ladder options on Capitol Hill for both.

In Republican circles, it has been Reps. Young and Brooks who are seen in close to universal perception as the two emerging members with the most gravitas. Young is becoming an influential member of the powerful Ways & Means Committee and is close to Chairman Paul Ryan, giving him a launching pad for a series of innovative ideas on the 40-hour week with regards to Obamacare, potential tax reform, and other policy options. Brooks serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired a Homeland Security sub-committee as a freshman, and is also on the Benghazi panel.

The Power 50, however, would not be an accurate gauge on one key element in a Senate race context: the ambition factor. Stutzman unsuccessfully sought the Senate seat in 2010, finishing second to Coats. He is, obviously, very ambitious.

At least two names outside of current members could also come into play. Several sources tell HPI that Holcomb is receiving encouragement to run if Coats retires. Other sources say that Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, while retiring from that office in 2015, has privately expressed interest in a possible Senate race. Holcomb has wide networks in the Daniels wing of the party, as well as within the party. Ballard has 100 percent name ID in the state’s largest media market.

In the 2016 scenario, a competitive GOP primary would be a virtual certainty, and it would play out in hectic fashion.

The 2018 race against Donnelly will likely be a more deliberative scenario. Some on Capitol Hill believe that a potential open seat 2016 nominee might be farther to the right than the 2018 process, which might be a better prospect for more moderate candidates such as Young and Brooks.

The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.