Sen. Daniel R. Coats (R-Ind.) announced Tuesday that he will not run for reelection in 2016, throwing open a potentially competitive seat that could factor into the battle for the Senate majority.
Coats, 71, who had been openly considering retirement in recent weeks, said in a statement that he made a difficult but necessary choice to step aside.
“This was not an easy decision,” Coats said. “While I believe I am well-positioned to run a successful campaign for another six-year term, I have concluded that the time has come to pass this demanding job to the next generation of leaders.”
Almost immediately, the race to replace him kicked into gear, with some politicians signaling interest and others swiftly ruling themselves out.
“It’s two hours into it, so who knows?” said Rep. Marlin A. Stutzman (R-Ind.), one of many potential candidates. “My BlackBerry’s already dead.”
The Democratic and Republican Senate campaign committees expressed confidence about their prospects in the Hoosier State. Democrats need to gain four seats to win back the Senate majority in 2016 — five if the next president is a Republican, since the vice president breaks ties. The GOP is defending 24 seats, while Democrats are protecting just 10.
Indiana was not seen as a major Senate battleground. But now that it is an open race, that could change.
“I think the Democratic Senatorial [Campaign] Committee has to take a look and see who their potential soldiers are,” said Brian Howey, who publishes Howey Politics Indiana. He noted that Hilary Rodham Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential front-runner, spent a lot of time in Indiana during her 2008 White House run and could boost the Democratic Senate nominee.
“Could they pull off an Obama and make Indiana competitive?” asked Howey, pointing to President Obama’s narrow victory in the Hoosier State in 2008.
The buzziest Democratic possibility is former senator Evan Bayh. A well-known former governor with a reputation as a moderate and with a massive war chest — he has nearly $10 million in his dormant campaign account — Bayh would be an instant front-runner on the Democratic side.
But there are serious doubts about whether Bayh would want to return to a body where the partisan rancor turned him off. He did not respond to a request for comment about his plans.
Other potential Democratic candidates include former congressman Baron Hill, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, state Rep. Christina Hale and former state House speaker John Gregg, according to close observers of Indiana politics.
Republicans may look to their U.S. House delegation for a replacement. Possibilities there include Stutzman and Reps. Susan Brooks, Todd Rokita, Todd C. Young and Jackie Walorski.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of people” in the race, said Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.), who ruled himself out as a candidate. Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.) also took himself out of the running.
Republicans have dominated Indiana politics in recent years. The GOP controls the governor’s mansion and eight out of the state’s 11 seats in Congress. Mitt Romney won Indiana by 10 percentage points in 2012.
But Democrats have shown they can compete there if Republicans nominate a flawed candidate.
Senate candidate Joe Donnelly (D) won an upset in 2012 over Republican Richard Mourdock, a tea party candidate who was derailed after he stoked widespread controversy by saying, “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
Nonpartisan election handicappers said that even without Coats in the picture, the race still favors Republicans. The Cook Political Report left Indiana in the “Likely Republican” column. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report moved it from “Safe Republican” to “Republican Favored.”
“The new rating reflects both the state’s fundamental bent and the lack of a proven incumbent,” Nathan Gonzales wrote.
Coats was elected to a second stint in the Senate in 2010. He had previously served in the chamber from 1989 to 1999. In between his Senate stretches, Coats was ambassador to Germany, from 2001 to 2005.
He was the 23rd-most-conservative member of the chamber, according to National Journal’s 2013 vote ratings. Upon rejoining, Coats focused heavily on fiscal issues. He has also regularly weighed in on foreign policy matters.
Coats, who served in the House from 1981 to 1989, is the first Republican senator to announce his retirement this year. Two Democrats — Barbara Boxer of California and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland — have said they will retire.