A 2016 re-election campaign might seem far off for Indiana state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, but already she is showing signs she will be a different kind of candidate.

Ritz was a political unknown when she engineered one of the most shocking upsets in recent Indiana political history in 2012.

But no longer is she the upstart school librarian from Washington Township who defeated education reform champion Tony Bennett. Now Ritz is a seasoned political warrior with something to prove.

On Tuesday her campaign held a fundraiser in Indianapolis more than 26 months before she’d need to convince voters to return her to her job as the state’s top elected education official.

The goal: be ready for the possibility of a strong, well-funded challenger put up by a Republican Party still smarting from Bennett’s defeat.

“It’s political malpractice in this day and age to not be preparing for the next election two years ahead of time,” said Kip Tew, a Democratic strategist who led the state’s presidential campaign for Barack Obama. “I have no doubt there will be a lot of money in it and she’ll be outspent.”

From challenger to incumbent

Glenda Ritz was a late arrival in the race against Bennett in 2012, beginning her campaign after her June nomination at the state Democratic convention.

She had little name recognition and even less money. Just prior to Election Day, Ritz had only raised about $350,000, most of it from the state’s two largest teachers unions. The rest mostly came from small contributors.

Bennett, by contrast, was a national darling in the school reform movement and had raised five times as much, or more than $1.8 million, in late October. His contributors included an all-star lineup of high profile advocates for school choice, higher academic standards and other reform ideas.

It didn’t matter.

Fueled by teachers who felt disrespected by Bennett’s blunt talk of the need to change, and accelerated by smart use of social media, Ritz’s effective campaign earned her 1.3 million votes — more than Gov. Mike Pence on the same ballot — and dethroned Bennett.

As superintendent since 2013, Ritz has emerged as perhaps the state’s most polarizing political office holder.

Her core supporters, especially teachers and rank-and-file Democrats, are intensively protective of her and deeply critical of those they view as challenging her authority. For example, a recent opinion column Ritz penned criticizing Pence’s appointees for interfering with her work was heavily shared on Twitter and Facebook with words of support from her fans and grievances aimed at her political opponents.

“I will vote to help Ritz this fall. Will you?” wrote Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer, a Bloomington-based education activist and Ritz supporter, while sharing the column on Twitter.

The passion for her is so strong, some supporters have wondered aloud if she could be a threat to take Pence’s job in 2016.

Ritz did not respond to interview requests, but Robin Winston, Ritz’s campaign consultant, shrugged off that suggestion.

“The superintendent has told us that every indication is that she intends to seek re-election to superintendent,” he said.

Even with energetic support, Democrats are not completely united behind her. A small group from her party support some of Bennett’s reform ideas — including her fellow Democrats on the state board.

One of them, the former Democratic deputy mayor of Indianapolis Gordon Hendry, went so far as to write a commentary sharply criticizing Ritz in the Indianapolis Star last month.

“I don’t know why the superintendent insists on creating conflict where rational debate should instead exist,” he wrote. “I have reached out to her on multiple occasions to sit down and talk through our differences. I hope she will change her mind and decide to work with us to promote an agenda of ideas instead of more empty, anti-everything rhetoric.”

Still, Ritz’s viewpoints are strongly consistent with those of the Democratic Party and national teachers unions. In Indiana, she advocates for the positions on education issues that dominate in her party, such as increasing state aid to schools, offering more support for teachers and approaching standardized testing with caution.

“The base of the Democratic party is firmly in Glenda’s corner,” Tew said.

A pitched political battle

Republicans, however, view Ritz’s non-threatening elementary school librarian persona as shrouding a shrewd political player who likes to go on the attack.

Bennett’s former allies, for instance, are still livid that leaks from her office to reporters led to ethics charges against Bennett and cost him a job as state education commissioner in Florida. Earlier this year Bennett paid a $5,000 fine for using the resources of his public office to support his political campaign but his lawyer argued the settlement amounted to an acquittal of more serious charges of manipulating school grades leveled at him by Ritz’s allies.

Pence has responded aggressively to counter Ritz. Last year, he created the Center for Education and Career innovation, moving money from the Ritz-run Indiana Department of Education to fund a new agency supporting the state board and coordinating education policy across several agencies.

Ritz called the move an effort to seize power over education policy. Since CECI’s creation, she has fought with state board members about her duties as the board’s chair, again complaining that the goal was to diminish her role.

The Republicans who still support Bennett’s reforms would clearly like a more agreeable state superintendent. A showdown with a strong opponent is all but assured in 2016, said Republican political strategist Robert Vane, a former adviser to Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard.

“She won fair and square in 2012, but she’s not going to be able to sneak up on anybody in the next go-around,” he said.

Within days of her election, Republican legislative leaders dismissed one potential response: eventually removing her from office by using their super majority control to pass a bill converting her post from elected to appointed.

So defeating her in the next election seems to be their plan. Deep thinking about what candidate would have the best chance won’t come before the 2014 election, said Tim Berry, Republican Party chairman.

“I do know there are individuals that are looking at 2016 and the superintendent’s race,” Berry said. “I have spoken with several that are contemplating a run, but as a party, our focus is right here on what’s immediately in front of us.”

Republicans and others who spoke with Chalkbeat speculated that a strong candidate might be found among legislative leaders, former Bennett staff, an ex-school superintendent or even a current state board member.

Brad Oliver, the state board member who has emerged as perhaps Ritz’s sharpest critic, said he hasn’t given the idea of challenging Ritz much thought.

“I’m trying to focus on providing leadership to the state board,” Oliver said. “We’re a long way from the fall of 2016.”

A different kind of candidate

A Ritz fundraiser coming more than two years before she’d have to seek re-election, and run by a political consulting firm paid by her campaign, shows that she’s broadening her political strategy.

The Indiana State Teachers Association, Ritz’s biggest contributor through its political action committee in 2012, can probably be counted on to be a big supporter again in 2016, said spokesman Andy Linebaugh.

“ISTA is currently focused on the 2014 elections, and should she be a candidate in 2016, in all likeliness, ISTA would support her,” he said.

But on Tuesday, Ritz was looking for new financial backers. Her team hopes support will extend beyond unions and small individual contributions. But Winston acknowledged he wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

“We won’t divulge what the fundraising goal is,” Winston said. “I can’t even predict what we will raise. There may be people who will write a check for $500 and there may be people who write a check for $25.”

One way or another, Winston said, Ritz’s goal is to prove her 2012 support can be sustained and even built upon.

“Never underestimate the strength of grassroots support for Glenda Ritz,” he said.