GOP braces for free-for-all in Indiana
© Greg Nash

The retirement of Sen. Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsNational counterterrorism chief to retire at the end of year Former intel chief Hayden: Think twice on a Trump job offer Counterintelligence needs reboot for 21st century MORE (R-Ind.) is likely to trigger a free-for-all in Indiana, with a number of Republicans scrambling for the seat. 

Meanwhile, Democrats think a crowded and contentious primary could give them an opening in the GOP-leaning state, holding out hope that former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) can be persuaded to run. 

More than half of the state’s GOP congressional delegation as well as a number of other Republicans are seriously weighing bids to replace Coats, who announced his retirement on Tuesday.

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“It's a potential Republican free-for-all,” predicted Indiana politics expert Brian Howey.

GOP Reps. Todd Young, Susan Brooks, Marlin Stutzman, Todd Rokita and Jackie Walorski are all weighing bids for the seat, according to Indiana Republicans, and they’re not the only ones. 

Eric Holcomb recently took leave as Coats’s chief of staff to gear up for a likely bid. A former Indiana Republican Party chairman who's been to every county in Indiana in his previous jobs, Holcomb has deep ties to both Coats and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R). He’s expected to be a major candidate in the field, and CNN reported he would have Coats’s backing.

Hoosier State Republicans also mention Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard (R) and Attorney General Greg Zoeller (R) as potential candidates. 

Reps. Larry Bucshon and Luke Messer have taken their names out of the running.

“In the last couple weeks as this has gotten more real, just about everyone in the delegation has taken a look at it. I don't think there's a field-clearer out there,” said Indiana Republican strategist Cam Savage, who served as an adviser to Daniels.

“We're likely to have a primary of some sort. There's a lot of talent out there. … This is a very deep bench, there are five or six candidates who you can't underestimate in this race.” 

Stutzman, who finished behind Coats in a 2010 Senate primary, told The Hill he’s “definitely considering it” and will make a decision within the next month. 

Sources close to Brooks also say she’s giving the race a look, and Indiana Republicans say the former deputy mayor of Indianapolis has long coveted a statewide office. Young is also seen as an ambitious politician looking to move up.

Sources close to Walorski and Rokita say they’re giving close consideration to runs as well, while a Holcomb spokesman said he’s “grateful for the immediate outpouring of support from every corner of Indiana and will make a decision soon.”

Rokita has the most in the bank of the House members, with $1.1 million cash on hand as of the end of 2014, followed by Brooks at $847,000; Young at $762,000; Stutzman at $470,000; and Walorski at $238,000.

Republicans deny that a competitive primary could give Democrats an opening in the race, but Democrats have been able to win in conservative-leaning Indiana in recent years thanks to GOP missteps.

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) won in 2012 after gaffe-prone Tea Party candidate and then-Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock defeated Sen. Richard Lugar in the GOP primary. President Obama narrowly carried the state in the 2008 Democratic wave election.

Republicans concede that Bayh would immediately make the race competitive — he remains popular in the state and still has $10 million left over from his last campaign.

But he’s resisted entreaties to run for other offices since his 2010 retirement and while he hasn’t ruled out running, some Democrats doubt that he will. 

“The only two people in the world that could convince Evan Bayh to run for Senate are Hillary and Bill Clinton,” said Democratic strategist Paul Tencher, who ran Donnelly's campaign in 2012.

Former Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker, a close Bayh ally, told The Hill the Senate race hasn't been on Bayh's radar — though he didn't completely close the door on a possible run.

"After speaking with Evan today, he wanted to share his thanks to Sen. Coats for his service to Indiana and try to focus on that today. For those who have called urging him to run, he wanted me to share that he is not a candidate in 2016," he said. 

"He thought extensively about running for governor again and decided not to last year. He has not put any thought into running for the Senate and he is not a candidate," he said. "He has not sworn off in the future, ever, here to eternity, that he would never be a candidate, he's just indicated that he is not going to be a candidate in 2016."

Tencher and other Democrats admit that Indiana is a challenging state to win, but argue that if Democrats find a strong candidate, Republicans will do the rest.

“Hoosier voters need a permission slip to vote for a Democrat,” he said, arguing that Democrats can win either when they find a star candidate or Republicans nominate a fatally flawed one. 

“In 2012 we gave them two. … What makes this race winnable is they'll nominate a Republican who's as far right as Richard Mourdock,” he predicted.

Tencher said former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson (D) is giving the race a serious look and could be a tough candidate.

Former Democratic Rep. Baron Hill said in a statement Tuesday evening that he "will strongly consider a bid for the U.S. Senate, and will spend the next coming days in serious discussion with my wife and my daughters, and make a decision soon.”

Other Democrats mentioned as potential candidates include former Rep. Brad Ellsworth and Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott.

Donnelly called Coats a “terrific partner” whom he’ll work with “til the last day” in a brief interview with The Hill. The senator said he believed Democrats could take back Coats’s seat, though he wouldn’t disclose who he thought should run.

— Scott Wong and Rebecca Shabad contributed.

This post was updated at 6:17 p.m.