Bayh's Retirement Creates A Problem For Democrats

Senator Evan Bayh's, a centrist two-term Democrat from Indiana, announced he was retiring Monday. Bahy raised lots of money and was considered a favorite to win re-election in November. But he said bitter partisanship in Washington spurred him to drop out of the race. Republicans now have a solid chance to pick up another Senate seat.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Democratic Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana says his decision not to seek a third term was not about whether he could win reelection or not.

Senator EVAN BAYH (Democrat, Indiana): My decision should not be interpreted for more than it is: a very difficult, deeply personal one. I'm an executive at heart. I value my independence. I'm not motivated by strident partisanship or ideology. These traits may be useful in many walks of life, but unfortunately, they are not highly valued in Congress.

WERTHEIMER: Senator Evan Bayh, speaking yesterday in Indianapolis. His decision is a major setback for Democrats in this year's midterm elections. Joining us now is NPR's political editor Ken Rudin.

Good morning, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So, Ken, did you see any signs that this announcement was coming?

RUDIN: No, I didn't, and I don't think Democrats did, either. He was busy -Evan Bayh was busy raising money. He had raised almost $13 million for a third-term bid. He led in all the polls, including against Dan Coats, the former senator.

The last poll had Evan Bayh up by 20 points in that race. It's also - his approval ratings in Indiana were very strong - 61 percent in the last poll I saw. In the same poll, Barack Obama had a 46 percent approval rating.

WERTHEIMER: So do you take his reasons for retiring at face value?

RUDIN: Well, I do. I mean, he's never liked the partisan battles. He's always been a centrist. He probably could've won again. It depends on what kind of climate it is in November. But as popular as he was back home, he was always on the outs with many progressives.

In Washington, he was always voting against his party on economic and budget issues. He took a hammering from the left. There was a post in Salon this morning, said good riddance. A lot of folks on the left didn't like him.

And I think if Evan Bayh was looking at a presidential run, the fact is by being such a centrist, either he was moving far to the right of his party or the party was moving too far to left of him. But his window for higher office, I think, was also gone.

WERTHEIMER: Now, he announced his decision just before the filing deadline for candidates to enter the race. So does he hurt the Democrat Party with this timing?

RUDIN: Well, there is some confusion about that. But it looks like there is a way out for the Democrat State Central Committee in Indiana that they can name a nominee as late as June 30th. And if they do that, it could save the party from an expensive and divisive primary. Of course, other people will say that's subverting democracy. But I don't think he leaves the party in the lurch, as some people think.

WERTHEIMER: Is it going to be a Republican seat?

RUDIN: I think so. It always had been. Evan Bayh was extremely popular. Dan Coats looks like the logical Republican nominee now. Now, of course, he has his own partisan problems. He was a lobbyist for a long time, and Democrats will harp on that.

The Democratic frontrunner looks like Brad Ellsworth. He's pro-gun. He's pro-life. If the progressives weren't happy with Evan Bayh, they're going to be far less happy with somebody life Brad Ellsworth.

WERTHEIMER: Bayh is the latest Democrat to cite partisanship as a major reason why he wants to leave. We're not hearing that from the Republicans, Ken.

RUDIN: No. A lot of Republicans are leaving. You should look at the numbers. But right now, the loudest voices are raised against the Democrats.

And just with Byron Dorgan in North Dakota, Chris Dodd in Connecticut, a lot of those see that fortunes for November don't look so good, and they're trying to leave.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Ken.

RUDIN: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. His Political Junkie blog can be found at npr.org/junkie.

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