INDIANAPOLIS – Of all the things written about U.S. Sen. Dan Coats' retirement, a headline calling him “old school” is among his favorites.

Coats, who has spent decades in and around Washington, D.C., said he likes to think it was a compliment that described him as a reliably conservative Republican who still seeks compromise as a strategy to get things done.

Coats, 71, who isn't running to keep his Senate seat after 2016, said he won’t miss the “grenade throwers” in his party. Nor, he said, will he miss trying to work with what he calls a “my way or no way” Democratic president.

And he really won’t miss raising millions of dollars for reelection.

“I now have the privilege of serving in the Senate for the next 20 months without having to run around the country and raise untold amounts of money to campaign,” Coats said.

In fact, since announcing in late March that he won’t seek another term, Coats has been returning donations from recent contributors who've requested refunds. And he's been making plans to use remaining campaign dollars to support Republican candidates in Indiana and across the country.

Last Saturday he was in Allen County for the annual Lincoln Day fund-raising dinner, happily raising money for local candidates. It was easy to do, he said.

“I was never very good at asking people for money for myself,” he said.

Coats is on his second tour of duty in Congress. He served in the House from 1981 to 1989, and in the Senate for the next decade. He was the U.S. ambassador to Germany, then a lobbyist, before state Republicans wooed him to to run again in 2010.

The average cost of winning a Senate race that year was about $9 million, according to Maplight, a non-partisan research group that tracks money in politics. It’s now more than $10 million.

Campaign fund-raising is “infinitely worse” now than it was during his first stint in the Senate, said Coats, who raised over $6 million for his 2010 race.

“It’s unbelievable what you have to go through these days," he said. "Every race is a multimillion-dollar race."

Coats puts a big part of the blame on the U.S. Supreme Court and its landmark decision in 2010 that allowed corporations to spend unlimited money to influence federal elections.

“They opened the floodgates,” he said, making it harder for incumbents and challengers alike.

“You can’t just count on support from your own state,” he said. “You have to run all over the country to raise that kind of money.”

You also have to keep an eye out for super PACs, the political action committees that can make or break a candidate.

“There’s always somebody who doesn’t know who you are but doesn’t like what you said on this issue or that,” he said. “And they can write a check for $10 million and create a super PAC that will blow you right out of the water.”

By the time he decided against re-election, Coats had slowed his fund-raising considerably. He raised less than $65,000 in contributions during the first three months of this year – a big drop from the $223,000 he’d raised in the last quarter of 2014.

Of $1.5 million he’d collected in campaign contributions since his 2010 election, Coats had $967,000 left in the bank as of late March.

Coats said he needed that large stash of campaign money, even though his seat was considered safe.

"It’s no longer about raising support from your state, from people who like who you are or like what you’re doing. It’s now amassing huge amounts of money to deter anybody else from running against you,” he said.

“As soon as you’re elected, you start raising money again. And it’s such a time-consuming distraction."

With that out of mind, Coats will spend the next 20 months working on what he said are two critical security issues.

One involves Senators' efforts to shape an agreement between the United States and Iran, which aims to reduce Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons.

Coats has criticized President Obama for giving away too much, and he wants the Senate to play a role in stopping Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons capability.

But he refused to join a majority of Senate Republicans who signed a letter sent Iran’s leaders, warning that an agreement signed with the Obama administration wouldn't last beyond Obama’s presidency.

Coats said the letter was an unnecessary provocation and opened the door for Democrats to accuse Republicans of being partisan with foreign policy.

His other passion: Urging Congress to move on what the calls the national “debt bomb” created by politically popular entitlement programs, including Medicare and Social Security.

Two years ago, Coats was a key player in negotiations with the White House on entitlement reform, but the effort failed.

Earlier this year, he turned to a different tactic to call attention to the federal debt. He now takes to the Senate floor to announce a “Waste of Week," on spending that Congress could cut.

His first suggestion - a loophole that allows individuals to collect both Social Security disability insurance and unemployment benefits. Ending it would save $5.7 billion, he said.

Coats said his "Waste of the Week" is a meager initiative compared to what he’d hoped to get done on debt.

“But maybe it’ll embarrass my colleagues into action,” he said.

Just last week, Coats made headlines when he voted against confirming Attorney General Loretta Lynch. He cited her support for Obama's deportation amnesty -- an executive order last year that delayed the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants.

Coats said the nation needs an independent attorney general who will enforce the law as written.

He plans to continue weighing in on critical issues while he’s got the time left.

“You know the saying about how March goes in like a lion and comes out like a lamb?” he said. “That’s not me. I plan on going out like a lion.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Reach her at maureen.hayden@cnhi.com. Follow her @MaureenHayden

Recommended for you