Virtual Voices

The real Dan Coats

Campaign 2010

Mud has not stuck to Dan Coats, who seems ready to regain his U.S. Senate seat from Indiana.

Indirectly, Coats also has taken out Indiana's star Democrat, Evan Bayh, and likely will deal a big setback to U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth, who was handpicked by Bayh to be his heir apparent.

It may depend on his margin of loss, but Ellsworth's otherwise bright future in Indiana politics will be dimmed by this campaign.

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Politically, Coats has scored twice on the Democrats, jumping into the Senate race in January and likely contributing to Bayh's subsequent decision not to seek a third term.

Coats also has survived a Democratic Party attempt to frame him as a fat-cat lobbyist. Sometimes that kind of negative campaigning works, and the Bayh team tried it as soon as Coats announced his challenge last winter. But the real Coats story was different.

While in the Senate he was a leading advocate of tackling social problems with private-sector remedies. He cited an example in the campaign: As president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, he worked with Prison Fellowship to find 35,000 mentors for children with parents in prison. "There's a limit to what government can do," he said in an interview.

His initiatives as a senator during the 1990s helped prompt then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush to call for public-private partnerships for social problems, which became part of the Bush presidency.

It's been hard for Democrats to frame Coats as the bad guy because he has been such a decent guy. He's been married to his wife, Marsha, for 45 years. He's been a friend to Democrats and practices civility instead of talking about it.

Ellsworth, oddly enough, has professed ignorance about Coats. In response to a question in an interview about good qualities in his opponent, he said, "I don't know him that well. I don't know his personal makeup."

At one level, Ellsworth is the most attractive young Democrat in Indiana, a potential successor to Bayh as the party's leader. Bayh brought the Democrats out of the wilderness of a Republican-dominated state in 1988, winning the first of two terms as governor. Then he won the Senate seat that Coats had held, again for two terms. He tried to run for president in 2008 as a moderate Democrat but could not get enough support in the race against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He hoped to give Ellsworth a boost by deciding to not seek a third term in the Senate, calling on state party leaders to name Ellsworth the nominee.

Ellsworth looked like the right kind of Democrat for Indiana. He's been a sheriff in southern Indiana. He is more conservative than his national party and has the National Rifle Association's endorsement. He's a pleasant person. Like when Mr. Smith went to Washington, he has an almost naïve approach, as in, "Shucks, let's just do what's right."

Yet that innocence can be a weakness. He says when he went to Congress after winning in 2006, he "didn't know who Nancy Pelosi was. I didn't know who Steny Hoyer was. My running for office wasn't about making a majority."

If he didn't bone up on who they were, it's no wonder they were able to get him to do their bidding on key issues.

Ellsworth seems to be the right Democrat who came into a statewide Indiana race at the wrong time. He can't abandon his national party or his leaders in Congress and has to defend his vote for the stimulus bill and national healthcare.

It's hard to do that in Indiana these days and at the same time paint Dan Coats as a villain.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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