Democrats May Be Hard Pressed To Retain Evan Bayh Senate Seat

Senator Evan Bayh Retires.

Bayh was undefeated at home — in five campaigns for secretary of state, governor and senator — but he hurt his national ambitions by moving more towards the center. hide caption

itoggle caption

The political world is still reeling, one day after Evan Bayh(D) — a consistent statewide winner in Indiana and a perennial mention for national office — announced he would not seek a third Senate term this year.

Never a fan of overt partisanship in a Congress that has become more and more partisan, Bayh said he was tired of a system in which politics won out over progress.

And he added that the decision "was not motivated by political concern. Even in the current challenging political environment, I am confident in my prospects for reelection. Five times over the last 24 years, I have been honored by the people of Indiana with electoral success. But running for the sake of winning an election, just to remain in public office, is not good enough, and it has never been what has motivated me."

The five times he's run and won: Indiana secretary of state (1986), governor (1988 & 1992) and senator (1998 & 2004).

There has been no lack of constant political bombshells this campaign season, but this one has to rate as one of the biggest.

Or, as Fox News' Chad Pergram wrote, "A shockwave like this one hasn't ripped across Indiana's cornfields since Bob Knight hurled a chair onto the court in a game against Purdue. ... The Hick from French Lick didn't generate a buzz like this when he jumped center against Magic Johnson in the 1979 NCAA title game."

The shock is understandable.

Bayh, 54, had raised close to $13 million for an expected third-term bid, and a recent poll showed him with a 20-point lead over a prospective Republican opponent, former Sen. Dan Coats. The poll was taken shortly after Coats let it be known that he was considering a run, so it's hard to tell how much these numbers truly reflected what Bayh's re-election race would look like in November. But it's fair to say he was favored.

That same poll, conducted by Research 2000, showed Bayh with a 61 percent approval rating and a 33 percent disapproval. President Obama's comparable numbers in the state were 46/49.

(If Coats does run, as seems likely, it would be a full circle for him. He opted out of a re-election bid in 1998 because he didn't want to face Bayh, then a popular former two-term governor. Coats originally came to the Senate via appointment after his predecessor, Dan Quayle, was elected vice president in 1988. And Quayle himself came to the Senate after he defeated Birch Bayh — Evan's dad — in 1980.)

But while Birch Bayh was reliably liberal, Evan Bayh has been anything but. He remained popular in the mostly Red state by reaching out to Republicans and independents, campaigning and voting like a centrist, while carrying fellow Democrats to victory on his coattails. He has frustrated his party's Senate leadership by balking on many of the Obama/Harry Reid budget proposals. On economic issues, he was less likely to vote with his party than anyone else in the caucus — and that includes Ben Nelson (NE), Blanche Lincoln (AR) or Joe Lieberman (I-CT).

Still, he was unbeatable at home. His political strengths were apparent early on; even in 1988 — with favorite son Quayle on the ticket for vice president and Sen. Dick Lugar an overwhelming favorite for re-election — Bayh took the governorship fairly comfortably, the first Democrat to do so in Indiana since the LBJ landslide in '64. He won a landslide re-election four years later, and his popularity was so strong that voters elected his lt. gov. to succeed him after he was term-limited out of office in '96.

His ascension to the Senate in 1998 was a foregone conclusion, whether or not Coats was going to run. And his centrist image and huge popularity in Indiana were just some of the reasons why Al Gore (2000), John Kerry (2004) and Barack Obama (2008) strongly considered him as a running mate.

The announcement comes just one day before the filing deadline in Indiana, and it left Hoosier Dems with a major headache — and lots of questions. Here's Indianapolis Star's Matthew Tully:

Which Democrat will step up to take Bayh's spot on the ballot?

Do Democrats without Bayh have any chance of holding onto the Senate seat in this Republican-leaning state?

How does this impact the GOP primary, and former Sen. Dan Coats' chances?

What is Bayh's legacy?

Who becomes the face of the Indiana Democratic Party?

Why did Bayh wait so long — just before the filing deadline — to announce his decision?

Let's try to answer them, in order.

The Democrats most mentioned as potential candidates seem to be Reps. Brad Ellsworth and Baron Hill. Both are Blue Dogs, more conservative than Bayh. But both voted for the health-care bill in the House. Ellsworth is a popular former sheriff from the western part of the state whose good looks and pro-life/pro-gun views helped him knock off then-Rep. John Hostettler (R) by an astounding 22 points in 2006. Hill is similarly conservative. He narrowly won the 9th CD seat vacated in 1998 by Lee Hamilton (D) and was re-elected, by close margins, twice more before he was defeated in 2004 by Republican Mike Sodrel in their second battle against each other. Hill won the rubber match in 2006 by just over four percentage points, and then clobbered Sodrel in 2008. (A fifth contest between the two was expected this year.) Back in 1990, before his House career, Hill was the Democratic nominee against Sen. Coats, running a respectable, if unsuccessful, race.

Other Democratic names mentioned include former Gov. Joe Kernan, ex-Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, and Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel.

Can the Democrats hold the seat? My early-bird guess is that they don't, but of course a lot has to do with the political climate by November and which candidates are running. While Coats hasn't yet officially entered the race, former Rep. Hostettler is already in. A few gun-rights groups in the state are backing him over Coats, who they say sold them out on some votes in the early 1990s. Another name heard is Gov. Mitch Daniels, though it seems like Coats may be settling in as the establishment choice, at least the choice of the Washington establishment.

National conservatives had for the longest time been pushing Rep. Mike Pence, who as chair of the House GOP Conference is the third-ranking Republican in the House. He took himself out of the running a couple of weeks ago, but with Bayh's announcement there was renewed interest in him.

On Monday, he said his decision stands, saying that he "believes that Republicans will retake the House in 2010" and that he "counts it a privilege to be a part of the House Republican leadership during this historic election."

In addition to Hostettler, state Sen. Marlin Stutzman is also seeking the GOP nomination.

For a brief second, I did think about how delicious it would be if Quayle's son Ben, who lives in Arizona, decided to move back to Indiana and run. Just think: Dan Quayle's son trying to succeed Birch Bayh's son. Can't make that stuff up. Anyway, that thought lasted with me for a brief second.

On Coats' chances: One had the feeling that, regardless of the polling numbers, Democrats were somewhat concerned about his potential candidacy. The constant barrage of anti-Coats e-mails and blog posts, about his lobbying activities and where he really lives and what he eats for breakfast, showed, at the least, that they saw him as a threat. He hasn't run for office in more than a decade, and so for many voters he may be as much as a stranger as Ellsworth or Hill or whomever the Dems put up. On the right, there is some evidence that Tea Party folks are not exactly thrilled at being told from Washington who their nominee should be. If Gov. Daniels and Congressman Pence rally around Coats, however, that could melt away any grassroots opposition.

On Bayh's legacy, more from the Star's Matthew Tully, who writes that his announcement

... removes from the ballot a politician credited by many with the rebirth of the state Democratic Party and a man who came within inches of the vice presidency less than two years ago. He is without question the head of the state Democratic Party. His decision leaves a void that will impact not just the Senate race, but also many others. ...

[His career is] a career largely free of the nasty partisan sniping so common in politics. Bayh has many critics. But it's hard to deny that he has always been a calm, moderating voice in a political system that too often appreciates sniping and screaming.

Moreover, he spent much of his Senate career working to move to an even higher office. With those prospects diminished, it's easy to imagine Bayh wondering whether he really wanted to serve six more years in the Senate. On top of that, the 2010 campaign was shaping up to be the nastiest of his career.

Here's Bayh's announcement speech in its entirety, courtesy MSNBC:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Why did Bayh wait until one day before the filing deadline to bow out? That's the part that has caused many to scratch their heads. Some Democrats have blasted him for leaving the party without enough time to field a competent nominee. But others point to the fact that the state central committee is allowed to fill a vacancy on the ballot by June 30. By doing that, the Dems could come up with a nominee without the messiness of having a divisive and expensive primary. Of course, another term for a divisive and expensive primary is ... democracy.

For some on the left, Bayh's departure is seen as good news. Too much his own guy, they said. Not a reliable Democratic vote, they complained. A showhorse, not a workhorse.

Steve Kornacki, writing in Salon, went even further. "Good riddance," he wrote:

Evan Bayh inherited all of his father's drive for national office but none of his progressive backbone. From his father's defeat, he seemed to draw a lesson: You can dream big dreams if you're a Democrat from Indiana — you just can't be proud to be a Democrat. And that has been the defining principle (to the extent there's been one) in Evan Bayh's quarter-century political career. ...

To his home state's largest newspaper, Bayh painted himself as an innocent bystander in a Capitol overrun by partisan bickering — a "centrist" surrounded by the extremists of the left and the right. (In Bayh's telling, the left is always equally, if not more, culpable for the country's problem's as the right.) ...

In this career narrative, a different motive for Bayh's Senate exit can be seen. He never set out to be a Senate lifer. He ran for the office because it was the next logical step on his rise to the White House, and when he got it, he made damn sure not to expose himself to the same right-wing taunts that toppled his dad. His goal wasn't to make a mark in the Senate; it was to hold onto the seat long enough to make the next logical move, to a national ticket.

Birch Bayh's Senate career was a remarkable one. ... And his son? Well, when George W. Bush launched his "war on terror" and turned his focus to Iraq, no Democrat cheered louder than Evan Bayh. And even when the tragic folly of that war and of the broader neoconservative agenda became apparent, he learned nothing. A confrontation with Iran? Sign Senator Bayh up.

24 years ago, Evan Bayh set out to prove voters that he wasn't like his father. As his Senate career ends, we can safely say: Mission accomplished.

Writing in the Huffington Post, Ryan Grim suggests Bayh is considering a 2012 primary challenge to Obama.

Meanwhile, if the left saw Bayh as a sellout and a RIEBNO — a Republican In Everything But Name Only — the right saw him as a liberal "lapdog." Here's Laura Ingraham talking about Bayh awhile back while she was subbing for Bill O'Reilly on Fox:

Early call: Republicans win the seat in November.

UPDATE: Hear my interview on the Bayh seat with host Linda Wertheimer on Tuesday's "Morning Edition" on NPR.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.