By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – Three years is the proverbial “eternity” in politics, but in modern Indiana political history, many gubernatorial campaigns take root 24 to 18 months out from election. So while it’s early to begin assessing the open seat 2024 gubernatorial field, Indiana Democrats had their first big jolt of the cycle last Friday.

That’s when the White House announced that President Biden was nominating former senator Joe Donnelly to be U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. It’s a plum gig for Donnelly, a devout Catholic and Notre Dame graduate.

He told Howey Politics Indiana that he wouldn’t be a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2022, but seemed to leave the door open for further cycles. “It was a great honor to serve our state in the U.S. House and Senate,” Donnelly said last March. “During the last two years, I have had the chance to teach U.S. national security at Notre Dame, to practice law, to work on Hoosier renewable energy issues, and to work with Indiana businesses to create more jobs. I remain open to being involved in public service again, but I will not be a candidate for public office in 2022.”

Donnelly spent much of this past summer stumping for President Biden’s American Rescue Plan with Indiana Democratic Chairman Mike Schmuhl, kindling some speculation that the senator, who had visited all of Indiana’s 92 counties each year during his U.S. Senate term, might be best positioned for this open seat.

Donnelly is a moderately conservative Democrat. He and his top agriculture advisor Kent Yeager had vivid and widespread relationships across rural Indiana. When HPI talked with Donnelly last January, he was quick to point to his political prowess: “I spent six years raising $18 million and then there was a candidate who can write a check for $20 million in an afternoon. Those are always things that have to get considered as well.”

Donnelly was confident he could win a second term. “Data analytics said if I hit 1 million (votes), I would win by 5% or 6%,” he said. But that was before President Trump appeared at a half dozen rallies for (Mike) Braun. “We always knew it would be tough because of Donald Trump; we were basically running against Donald Trump,” Donnelly said of his 5% loss to Braun. Donnelly ended up with 1,025,178 votes, but lost to Braun who polled 1,161,546.

The door is still open for a potential gubernatorial run. If he follows the path former Indiana congressman Tim Roemer did after President Obama appointed him ambassador to India, he could spend two years in Rome, then come back to ignite a 2024 campaign in mid- to late-2023.

But with Donnelly at the Vatican, the 2024 gubernatorial field could take shape.

Topping the list of potential candidates is former legislator Christina Hale, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and Indiana Democratic Chairman Mike Schmuhl. Others expected to take a look at the race include  State Sen. Eddie Melton, businessman Josh Owen and former superintendent of public instruction Jennifer McCormick.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who is seeking the 2022 Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, told HPI on Wednesday, “I always hoped that Joe Donnelly would come out of retirement for the 2024 governor’s race. Now that he’s been appointed the ambassador to the Vatican, that option is off the table. Mayor/Secretary Pete Buttigieg probably won’t be an option either. I have the feeling he will either be busy defending the Biden administration as they seek reelection, or he himself will be running for POTUS if Biden doesn’t seek a second term.”

McDermott, the former Lake County Democratic chairman, continued, “I’m sure Mayor Hogsett will take a look at that race also. After all, he has the resume. He’s a successful big city mayor of Indianapolis. I’m sure the open governor’s seat will intrigue him. Mayor Joe has a great statewide brand and would be a formidable opponent for any Republican. I’m also a huge fan of Christina Hale, who would be an amazing candidate for governor. She is politically astute and very ambitious. Christina is tough as nails, isn’t afraid to campaign against anyone and is known statewide. She would be an awesome candidate.”

Here is HPI’s first assessment of the potential Democratic field:

Indianapolis Mayor Hogsett:
Appearing at the Indiana Democratic Editorial Association convention last August, observers told HPI that Hogsett was acting like a future gubernatorial contender.

The mayor has had a mixed record in Indiana’s capital city after defeating Republican Chuck Brewer in 2015 by 62-38% and in 2019, drubbing State Sen. Jim Merritt 71-26%. He has faced record homicide rates for much of his two terms. He has taken $419 million of American Rescue Plan funds and sought $150 million for a three-year anti-crime plan. On this front, it would be the antithesis of a frequent Republican attack line against Democrats, that the party seeks to “defund the police.”

Hogsett also inherited decrepit roads and bridges, and launched systemic paving and bridge reconstruction, along with residential street repaving. In 2019, he proposed an eight-county regional infrastructure funding program. DPW Director Dan Parker said, “Those commuters have jobs in Marion County, but they aren’t paying for any of the infrastructure. They pay zero in income tax to Indianapolis. It all goes to the county of residence.” But the Hogsett plan caught suburban mayors like Scott Fadness of Fishers, Jim Brainard of Carmel and Greenwood’s Mark Myers off guard, saying they were “surprised” and “perplexed” by Hogsett’s proposal, which has since found little traction.

Beyond policy, Indianapolis mayors haven’t done well running statewide. While the late Sen. Richard Lugar holds the all-time record for most votes statewide, winning seven of eight Senate races (but losing to Sen. Birch Bayh while still mayor in the Watergate election of 1974), Hogsett knows all too well that it’s tough for an Indy mayor to run statewide. In 1990, he defeated Republican Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut for secretary of state, 53-47%. Hudnut had hoped to use a secretary of state win as a springboard to the 1992 Republican gubernatorial nomination to challenge Gov. Evan Bayh. Hogsett’s campaign successfully attacked Hudnut for dozens of tax and fee increases.

In 1988, Republican Mayor Steve Goldsmith ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor as John Mutz’s running mate, losing to Evan Bayh and Frank O’Bannon. In 1996, Goldsmith was an early heavy favorite to win the open seat, but lost 52-47% to Lt. Gov. O’Bannon. That run was hampered by adverse reaction to the Meridian Street police riot (Exhibit A in not running statewide as a sitting mayor), as well as allegations of influence peddling and negative campaign ads.

Hogsett has not fared well in elections outside of Indianapolis, losing to U.S. Sen. Dan Coats in 1992 (57-40%), to Republican David McIntosh in an open 1994 congressional race (54% to 45%), and to Attorney General Steve Carter in 2004 (58% to 39%).

Those urban/rural divisions have only widened in recent campaign cycles as Indiana has gone from light red to deep crimson since 2010, and his regional infrastructure proposal would likely become a major GOP campaign issue should Hogsett win the Democratic nomination.

Christina Hale: Asked if she was considering a 2024 run, Hale told HPI on Tuesday, “Right now I’m focused on my ongoing work in health care, violence prevention and youth leadership development. I think that’s why people are asking me about running, as these are still issues on everyone’s mind. The election in 2024 will be a very high stakes one for Hoosiers for a number of reasons.”

Hale served on Gov. O’Bannon’s staff, managing state regulatory boards and commissions. She took part in Chairman Schmuhl’s American Rescue Plan tour this past summer and is deputy Democratic chair on candidate recruitment.

She won three competitive Indiana House races, defeating Republican incumbent Cindy Noe. In 2016, she was tabbed as John Gregg’s lieutenant governor nominee, only to watch Gov. Mike Pence join Donald Trump’s presidential ticket, with Gregg losing to Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb in what became a Trump-forged landslide that swamped down ballot Democrats. In 2020, she lost to U.S. Rep. Victoria Spartz by 4% and has since been drawn out of the 5th CD.

Mike Schmuhl: The new chairman of the Democratic Party has all the skill sets to be a gubernatorial candidate: Organizing, messaging, fundraising, leadership. He ran Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign, raising $100 million while using technology and old-style campaign stumping across rural Iowa to help the mayor win the caucuses there, then finishing a close second to Sen. Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire. Schmuhl initially turned down the chair late in 2020, before shifting gears. He has vowed to show up across Indiana’s rural counties and urban areas.

Schmuhl is native of South Bend, worked on campaigns for former Sen. Donnelly (2010), State Senator Shelli Yoder (2016), and businessman Mel Hall (2018). He served as Buttigieg’s first chief of staff in South Bend after running his campaign for mayor in 2011. Schmuhl was the elected the 2nd Congressional District Democratic chairman from 2011 to 2013, becoming the youngest member of the state central committee at the time with full voting rights.

Previously, he was vice president at the Democratic consulting firm 270 Strategies in Chicago, where he advised nonprofits, issue-based causes, and labor unions. Before working in politics, he worked in the newsroom of The Washington Post as a producer and booker for broadcast outlets. He also interned for the late Tim Russert at NBC News’ Meet the Press. He received a BA in History from the University of Notre Dame and a MA in International Affairs from Sciences Po in Paris, France.

If President Biden were to decline a second nomination and Secretary Buttigieg ran for the presidency, it would surprise no one that Schmuhl would be back running a national campaign. With a former state party chair now in his second term as governor (Eric Holcomb), it is not a reach to put Schmuhl on this list, and Schmuhl presents all the necessary skill sets and campaign backgrounds to be considered a viable contender for governor.

Josh Owen: The Indianapolis businessman ran a brief campaign for governor in 2019/20 as the first openly gay gubernatorial candidate, giving way to eventual nominee Woody Myers. He lists Indianapolis and San Diego as home. While Owen was active in what direction the Indiana Democratic Party should take leading up to the chair election in March, he has kept a low profile since.

State Sen. Eddie Melton: He ran briefly for governor in 2019/20 before dropping out in favor of Woody Myers. If he were to seek the governorship in 2024, he would have to give up his Senate seat. Melton is from Merrillville and served on the Indiana State Board of Education. Melton was elected to the state senate in 2016. In November 2020, Melton was elected as the assistant minority floor leader of the Indiana Senate. But with a tiny Senate Democratic caucus, Melton lacks the statewide network needed to forge a gubernatorial campaign.

Jennifer McCormick: The former one-term Republican superintendent of public instruction clashed with the Holcomb administration before announcing she would not seek a second term. McCormick began campaigning with Sen. Melton in 2019 on a statewide listening tour, igniting speculation that she might run for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Melton. She subsequently left the GOP. She is a former school superintendent from Yorktown.