Can Dan Coats survive a GOP primary?

After wave of revelations, Democrats are licking their chops. But are his GOP opponents, too?

Published February 10, 2010 9:47PM (EST)

If the mountain of opposition research that Democrats have been dumping on former Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., was intended to make him rethink his plans to take on Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, it didn't work. The 66-year-old Coats, who left office in 1998 rather than face a challenge from Bayh, confirmed today that he'll run for his old seat this year.

But the public airing of his dirty laundry (including, most damningly, a video of Coats declaring his desire to move to North Carolina), has clearly weakened his prospects, equipping Democrats with months of attack ad material. More importantly, it's raised a question that seemed laughable when he first emerged as a candidate last week: Can he survive the Republican primary?

Coats is the favorite of his party's establishment, but that doesn't guarantee a politician much these days. (Just ask Charlie Crist.)  And, in fact, there's already at least one other credible GOP candidate looming -- a candidate who can now beat Coats over the head with the past week's revelations.

That would be former Rep. John Hostettler, who announced his Senate candidacy late last year, back when Bayh was still seen as a general election lock (and lock before Coats' name surfaced).  Hostettler is a bit eccentric, but that didn't stop him from winning six House elections in a district known as "the Bloody Eighth."  where he was one of the most conservative members, a favorite of both the fiscal and social right.

An ardent opponent of gay rights and abortion, Hostettler was a hero to Christian conservatives in southern Indiana. He raised little money and was badly outspent in most of his campaigns, relying instead on the devotion of his grassroots base. He held the seat from 1994 until 2006, when he fell victim to the national Democratic wave.

Just before Coats threw his hat in, a Rasmussen poll showed Hostettler trailing Bayh by only three percentage points, with 12 percent of respondents undecided.

Given the way conservatives have responded to establishment Republican candidates lately (see Scozzafava, Dede), the idea that the right could rally around Hostettler instead of Coats isn't completely implausible -- especially now that Hostettler can now sell himself as a "true Hoosier" running against a guy who was registered to vote in Virginia until this year.

That said, Rep. Mike Pence, a top House conservative who was talked about as a challenger to Bayh, has already thrown his weight behind Coats. Also, Republican National Committeeman James Bopp, a big player in the RNC's "purity" resolution and in the RNC's conservative wing generally, is in Coats' camp.

But it's too early to rule anything out, especially after all the dirt that's hit Coats. Another Republican hopeful, State Sen. Marlin Stutzman, has been echoing the charges that Democrats made; if they stick, life could become difficult for the former senator long before the fall.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2010 Elections Dan Coats R-ind. Evan Bayh