Former Indiana Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) is mulling a run for governor next year, according to two Democratic operatives familiar with his thinking.
The move could put him on a collision course with Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who appears poised to run for governor after announcing last week he wouldn't seek the presidency in 2012.
Ellsworth, a two-term congressman, left his seat to run for Senate last cycle but lost to Republican Dan Coats. He's since remained quiet about his future plans, but Indiana and Washington Democratic operatives now say he could jump into the race.
"Brad has not ruled this out," a top Indiana Democratic operative told The Ballot Box. "He's fielding calls from folks. He's such a good guy and that's why folks want him to stay involved in public service."
A Washington Democratic operative also said Ellsworth was thinking about mounting a run for governor.
Ellsworth did not respond to an interview request relayed through his former campaign spokeswoman.
The former Vanderburgh County sheriff made his law enforcement experience the centerpiece of his Senate campaign. Indiana voters weren't excited by Ellsworth's law-and-order pitch for their Senate votes, but a similar campaign for statewide office could gain traction.
The challenge for Democrats is to avoid a bruising primary fight. Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) is also considered a potential gubernatorial candidate — he recently told Indiana reporters that he'll make a decision based on how the district looks after Census redistricting.
Another name in the Democratic mix is Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel, who announced earlier this month that he won’t seek a third term.
Weinzapfel has some $750,000 in his campaign account, operatives said, which could be rolled over into a gubernatorial bid. Ellsworth and Donnelly, meanwhile, have almost no federal campaign funds left, according to their latest Federal Election Commission filings. In fact, Ellsworth remains about $11,000 in debt from his Senate run, according to his year-end FEC report.
Seed money wouldn't necessarily be an issue if former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) again opens his campaign coffers to his fellow Democrats. He's sitting on about $10 million in his Senate account, but isn’t expected to seek public office in 2012. During the 2010 cycle, he transferred $1.5 million to the state party to help bolster Ellsworth and other Democrats.
Bayh's money aside, Democrats don't expect a thorny nomination process. An operative noted that Weinzapfel and Ellsworth, who is from Evansville, are friends, and that the congressman is also close to Donnelly, whom he served with in the House.
They won't all seek the nomination, the operative said. "They can work it all out."
Pence, meanwhile, is expected to clinch the GOP nomination unopposed, should he run. But Democrats insist the general election won't be a foregone conclusion. Pence hasn't had to compete in a close race since he was elected in 2000 and isn't as well known in Indiana as other Republicans such as Gov. Mitch Daniels and Sen. Dick Lugar.