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Mitch Daniels weighing return to politics

Mitch Daniels is eyeing a political encore.

The former two-term Indiana governor, who came to the brink of announcing a 2012 presidential bid in 2011 before backing out over family concerns, announced last week that he would step down as president of Purdue University at the end of this year after nearly a decade, shocking the campus.

Now, longtime loyalists and friends say the 73-year-old former director of George W. Bush’s Office of Management and Budget is warming up to the idea of a return to politics, batting around a potential third gubernatorial run in the Hoosier state’s open 2024 contest. Current Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Daniels ally and his handpicked party chairman during his administration, is term-limited from running again.

“He’s fascinated by the idea,” Mark Lubbers, Daniels’ longtime confidante and top political adviser early in his gubernatorial administration, told POLITICO in an interview Thursday while on an annual golf trip with Daniels at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.V. He said the two “discussed” recent speculation in Indiana media that Daniels could mount a return to the political stage after his turn in academia.

“We have NOT discussed policy or politics of a run,” Lubbers later added in a text. “Suffice to say he would never do it unless he felt there were ambitious policy objectives. You’ve heard him say before that he likes BIG ideas. He would have no interest ever in running to just hold the seat again. Not his style.”

Daniels did not return voicemail or text messages seeking confirmation. A Purdue University spokesman declined to comment, citing Daniels’ vacation.

“Based in Lafayette” newsletter journalist Dave Bangert asked Daniels about his prospects last week, and Daniels responded, “I don’t have any right now.”

If Daniels—who remains popular in the suburban counties that ring Indianapolis and elsewhere across the state—did mount a run for governor, he would face a Republican primary electorate here that has shifted right in recent years, according to his former pollster Christine Matthews.

“The thing that has always been true about Mitch Daniels is that he has approached public office as a chance to ‘do’ not to ‘be,’” said Matthews, who is currently president of Bellwether Research. “And right now, voters are so despondent that political leaders can’t seem to get things done that I think his approach is one that would be very welcome.”

Matthews added that a Daniels return would face at least some challenges. “The dynamics in Republican primary elections have changed a lot since 2004 and that could be a concern,” she said. “However, he has the benefit of having been governor for eight years and hopefully he will be able to navigate what a primary electorate might be cued up to demand – such as complete fealty to Donald Trump.”

Daniels took something of a vow of political silence when he took the reins of Purdue, but at times has expressed unease with the direction of American politics. “I don’t think [talking about politics] is appropriate,” Daniels told Yahoo! News in a 2018 interview. “Let’s just say I have concerns about the future of our whole political system,” he told Indianapolis Monthly in 2020.

But Daniels has maintained a column in The Washington Post in which he is not afraid to tackle matters of politics, criticizing the Biden administration’s regulatory policy, arguing for the confirmation of Biden’s OMB Director Neera Tanden, and writing about the science of climate change.

Writerly and cerebral, Daniels has approached his tenure at Purdue University as an experiment in reforming higher education, famously freezing tuition there for 11 years and saving students $1 billion, according to the university. Popular with a large swath of students, he teaches a class on World War I and relishes writing and delivering an annual commencement address in which he often discusses sociological trends and gives students advice. He routinely works out in Purdue’s RecWell gymnasium, sometimes flashing his biceps in a sleeveless shirt in photos students post to Instagram.

But he has also courted controversy at times, angering a coalition of Black students for not more vocally embracing the Black Lives Matters movement. The Instagram account Black at Purdue, which chronicles students’ experiences on campus, gained 6,000 followers in the summer of 2020.

Should Daniels run for governor, he could also potentially face a crowded Republican field. Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch has teased a possible primary bid. Sen Mike Braun has said he will decide on a possible bid after the midterm elections. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, who recently retired from Congress, could also run, a person close to him has said, as could Rep. Jim Banks. Former State Sen. Jim Merritt is also weighing a run.

Lubbers said that the current field has left some in the Daniels wing of the Indiana Republican Party underwhelmed, and talk among Daniels’ allies about his return to politics began six months ago.

“It was an amazing eight years of accomplishment,” said Cam Savage, Daniels’ former campaign communications director. “And it’s really hard to replicate. And there’s just a hunger for those days, that sort of style of leadership. No knock on anybody else. But we’ve already proven that he can do it.”

Daniels downplayed speculation in 2016 that he would run for president. “Why would I take the demotion?” he told the Lafayette Journal & Courier. “Sooner or later, you’ll figure out that when I say these things, I mean them.”

In May 2011, he wrote his supporters a late-night message explaining his decision not to seek his party’s presidential nomination. “What could have been a complicated decision was in the end very simple: on matters affecting us all, our family constitution gives a veto to the women’s caucus, and there is no override provision. Simply put, I find myself caught between two duties. I love my country; I love my family more.”

This time, Daniels’ wife, Cheri, is said to be on board, according to Lubbers. “I was teasing her about it and, surprisingly, she was warm to the idea. I think she had fun as First Lady and felt she did some good on women’s heart health and promotion of the state fair.”

One person close to Daniels who asked not to be identified said that Daniels is primarily contemplating a return to state politics, not national. “He doesn’t want to go to Washington,” the person said. “Cheri doesn’t want to go. Cheri is supportive here. That is a giant thing.”

Some supporters are urging him to run for mayor of Indianapolis, Lubbers said. It would provide a storybook ending for a man who began his government service as an administrative assistant in 1971 to then Indianapolis Mayor Dick Lugar, whom he followed to the U.S. Senate as his chief of staff before working for President Ronald Reagan as assistant to the president for political and intergovernmental affairs. According to residency requirements, Daniels would have to live in Indianapolis before the end of the year to qualify. Daniels has long split his time between a residence in the northern suburb of Carmel and Westwood, the 1932 English Tudor home where Purdue presidents traditionally live.

“I can just tell you he’s nowhere near done,” Lubbers said. “He’s 73, and he’s still doing as many push-ups as his age every morning.”

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