Indiana GOP loses big gun Daniels ahead of elections

One of the biggest surprises of the announcement that Gov. Mitch Daniels would take over as Purdue University president in January was his pledge to stop campaigning and commenting on politics until then.

That statement, at least for the immediate future, placed a cap on 40 years of politicking, a career that has included his stint as President Ronald Reagan's political director and his extensive work building his own legacy as a two-term governor of Indiana.

It also deprives Republicans of one of their strongest weapons going into November's elections.

"I don't think there was any alternative to it," Daniels said of his decision the day after he was elected university president. "My responsibilities aren't going to change in six months, but my association with Purdue started yesterday and I owe it to them and every member of that community to be strictly, now, as non-partisan as the school is."

Indiana Republicans credit Daniels with resuscitating a party that had been severely demoralized by 16 years of Democratic rule in the governor's office. After eight years with Daniels at the helm, the tables have turned. State government rests squarely in the hands of Republicans, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, the governor's office and a majority of appointments to the state Supreme Court.

Up for grabs in November are the governor's office, one of Indiana's two Senate seats and a smattering of potentially close races for Congress and the General Assembly.

Party leaders past and present downplayed any impact Daniels' decision would have, even as they pumped up his importance in building the Indiana GOP into a juggernaut.

Former Republican Party Chairman Mike McDaniel ran the party from 1995-2002 while Democrats held the governor's office and a U.S. Senate seat. Daniels played a dominant role in leading the party "out of the wilderness," he said.

But McDaniel thinks the effects of Daniels' decision to bow out of campaigning decision will be muted.

"I don't see a huge hole to climb out of as a result of this in the final six months," he said.

Despite the strong footing the state party now has, candidates have continued to rely on Daniels for help. U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, one of Daniels' political mentors, leaned heavily on the governor in the waning days of his unsuccessful re-election bid, airing a pair of ads that featured Daniels talking about why the six-term senator should be returned to the Capitol. Daniels also used his Aiming Higher PAC to spend $2.4 million on Statehouse races that helped Republicans win back the House of Representatives in 2010.

Indiana Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb published a book called "Leading the Revolution" that details Daniels' rules for leadership. While those rules — including placing a value on showing up in person, setting performance metrics and establishing long-term goals — apply pretty evenly across many careers, they worked particularly well for Daniels as he built the state party into a force to be reckoned with, Holcomb said.

"During his tenure, I can't tell you how many candidates have said 'I want to be a part of that,'" said Holcomb, who was Daniels' campaign political director in 2004 and campaign manager in 2008 before taking over the state party.

Holcomb said Daniels' influence has been critical in helping candidates pursue offices, including Sue Ellspermann, a freshman state representative who is now running for lieutenant governor with Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Pence.

"You don't build the airplane in the air," Holcomb said. "We intend to have a safe landing."

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