Republicans Focus On Sen. Bayh's Seat

fromWFIU

Following the announced retirement of Senator Evan Bayh, Indiana's Democratic Party is scrambling to replace the man who's been its most visible figure for the last 25 years. Bayh's retirement has bolstered the state's Republicans, who've struggled to overcome the senator's broad appeal.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's follow up on another development that affects the Democratic Party this fall. Senator Evan Bayh announced earlier this month that he will not seek reelection in Indiana, and his decision has caused anxiety among his fellow Democrats. For the state's Republicans, though, his retirement is an opportunity.

Stan Jastrzebski of member station WFIU in Bloomington reports.

STAN JASTRZEBSKI: Since his first election in 1986, Evan Bayh won every race where he appeared on the ballot, rising from secretary of state, to governor, to senator.

Mr. BRIAN VARGUS (Political Analyst): For a long time, among Democrats in Indiana, Evan Bayh was certainly the bright, shining light.

JASTRZEBSKI: Brian Vargus has been a political analyst in Indianapolis for nearly 40 years.

Mr. VARGUS: He was the savior. He was going to lead us back from this precipice of becoming an irrelevant party in what would seem to be an overwhelmingly Republican state to many people.

JASTRZEBSKI: And to Republicans, he was a candidate they just couldn't seem to beat. When Bayh was elected governor in 1988, he was only 32 years old, and the first Democrat to win that office since 1964. And as Bayh rose to the U.S. Senate 10 years later, it appeared that Democrats had found a winning brand in Republican-leaning Indiana: be socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. And state Democratic Party chairman Dan Parker predicts it's a brand that will survive, even in Bayh's absence.

Mr. DAN PARKER (Chairman, Indiana Democratic Party): I think that the Bayh brand of being a centrist Democrat - socially progressive, but also fiscally conservative, fiscally responsible - is, I think, something that has sold for quite a long time here in Indiana.

JASTRZEBSKI: When Bayh pulled out of the race less than two weeks ago, he did so just 24 hours before the deadline to collect the necessary signatures to appear on the primary ballot. That left the candidate choice to the Democratic Party's State Central Committee. The biggest name to officially declare his candidacy for Bayh's Senate seat is Evansville Congressman Brad Ellsworth, a former sheriff who's been in Washington for two terms.

But political analyst Brian Vargus says it's Ellsworth's policies which may garner statewide attention.

Mr. VARGUS: He voted against the stimulus package. He's right-to-life. This could tick off a lot of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

JASTRZEBSKI: Still, Ellsworth is the name on most Democrat's lips here. The 32 members of the state's Democratic Central Committee will meet sometime after the May 4th primary to choose a nominee. But it's clear that whoever the Democrats nominate will not have the same statewide name recognition that Bayh enjoys, and that could hurt other Democrats down ticket.

While Evan Bayh was once considered the golden boy of Indiana politics, son of longtime Senator Birch Bayh, he's now in the subject of some ridicule, including a parody song on YouTube, which is getting more than 3,000 hits a day.

(Soundbite of YouTube video)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) And I thought Indiana's favorite son was tough enough to get it done.

JASTRZEBSKI: But even state Republicans who have new found hope for Bayh's seat agree his legacy lives on. State GOP spokesman Trevor Foughty claims that Republican strategists don't really care who the Democrats eventually nominate, since it seems Bayh has drawn up the plays for most Democrats in this year's election.

Mr. TREVOR FOUGHTY (Spokesman, Indiana Republican Party): They all speak a conservative rhetoric when they're back home, but then they go out to Washington and cast votes for these liberal policies that Hoosiers have rejected. So it looks like we may just be changing the name, but the playbook's going to stay the same.

JASTRZEBSKI: It was just two years ago that Barack Obama became the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to carry Indiana in the presidential election. But has Bayh's retirement helped erode any momentum that may have developed? Nicole Bauer(ph) is a political science graduate student at Indiana University. She thinks the idea of Democratic momentum is just myth.

Ms. NICOLE BAUER (Graduate Student, Indiana University): That kind of a general image of Indiana and its role in national politics or in presidential elections is still as a conservative, Republican-leaning state. I don't think that's -that changes at all.

JASTRZEBSKI: Some have speculated Bayh's late departure from the race stopped rising Republican stars like Fifth District's Congressman Mike Pence from seeking the seat. But it was not late enough to prevent five Republicans -including former Congressman John Hostettler and the man Bayh replaced, former Senator Dan Coats - from declaring for the GOP primary. Brad Ellsworth is one of three elected officials attempting to curry favor with Democratic insiders who will appoint their party's nominee.

If the Republicans win, not only will it be the first time since 1999 that both Hoosier senators represent the GOP, but it could be a back to the future, of sorts. The last two Republicans to hold the offices were current Senator Richard Lugar and one of the Republican frontrunners in this year's senate race: Dan Coats.

For NPR News, I'm Stan Jastrzebski in Bloomington, Indiana.

INSKEEP: We have some other political news this morning - political, as well as personal. A judge said this morning she will grant a divorce to South Carolina's first lady. Jenny Sanford is already separated from Mark Sanford. He's the governor who disappeared in order to meet his mistress in Argentina.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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