Evan Bayh to seek Senate return
Former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, who in 2011 left Congress in disgust over Washington dysfunction, is reportedly poised to give the nation's capital another chance and run for an Indiana seat in the Senate this fall.
The stunning move puts another Senate seat in play and reflects increasing confidence by Democrats that they can retake control of the chamber. In its wake, the respected, nonpartisan Cook Political Report moved the Indiana race's competitive categorization up two levels, from "likely Republican" to "toss-up."
"That's how much it changes things," says Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for The Cook Political Report. Bayh will replace former Rep. Baron Hill on the ballot for the open seat being vacated by GOP Sen. Dan Coats. Coats also had made a return visit to the Senate, retiring in 1999 after a decade in the chamber and then running again in 2010, a banner year for Republicans.
Upon his retirement, Bayh – who was on President Barack Obama's short list for vice presidential running mate in 2008 – made no secret of his frustration with the Senate, where he had served 12 years and where his father, prominent Democrat Birch Bayh, had served 18.
"I love working for the people of Indiana. I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives. But I do not love Congress," the younger Bayh said when he announced his decision to retire.
Republicans immediately denounced Bayh's decision as a cynical move by Democrats to expand the map – and with someone who worked as a lobbyist after leaving Capitol Hill, at that.
"This bait-and-switch maneuver is the latest sign that Democrats are desperate to hang on to their diminishing chances to take the Senate in November. It won't work," Ward Baker, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement. Coats, notably, also worked as a lobbyist before running again for the Senate in 2010.
Bayh's name recognition and money – he had more than $10 million left over from his old Senate campaign committee, compared with Hill's less than $400,000 in cash on hand in April – make him a formidable Democratic contender in an otherwise conservative state. But he still faces a tough challenge from GOP Rep. Todd Young, a former Marine who has raised $3.7 million and had a little more than $1 million in cash on hand as of mid-April, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Senate class up for re-election this year came in during the tea party wave of 2010, meaning a number of lawmakers might not have won in another year, says Marjorie Hershey, a political science professor at Indiana University. "That would have been good circumstances for the Democrats before," she says, but with Bayh's entry, "the circumstances for the Democrats are looking better and better."
Bayh was a popular lawmaker when he was in office, having served as the Hoosier State's governor as well. His comments denouncing Washington will undoubtedly be used against him, but Republicans are facing the same challenge in Florida, where Sen. Marco Rubio reversed course and said he would run for re-election, despite having complained openly about his frustration with the Senate.
Indiana is generally considered a red state, but has shown a willingness to elect Democrats statewide. Obama, for example, won the state in 2008 but lost it in 2012. Democrats also took over a Senate seat long held by Republicans in 2012, following a series of events that derailed the GOP. Incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar, facing an anti-establishment electorate and criticism that he spent too much time in Washington and not enough in Indiana, lost his primary to Richard Mourdock.
Mourdock then lost the general election to Sen. Joe Donnelly after the GOP candidate made some controversial remarks, saying it was God's plan if a woman became pregnant from a rape.
Republicans are playing defense this year in their efforts to maintain majority control of the upper chamber, an advantage that would be critical to thwarting the agenda of presumed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, should she win the White House. Indiana is now one of seven "toss-up" seats held by Republican senators, according to The Cook Political Report, with seats in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois also considered up for grabs.
Democrats, for their part, are defending only one "toss-up" seat – the Nevada one being vacated by the looming retirement of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
In the past, competitive races for the U.S. Senate have gone overwhelmingly for one party or the other. For example, Democrats picked up eight seats in the chamber in 2008, while the GOP took a half-dozen seats back in 2010.
The presence of Donald Trump on the ticket, meanwhile, could damage Republicans in some areas, Duffy says. And Americans have moved away from ticket-splitting, making things tougher for down-ticket Republicans seeking to distance themselves from the GOP's bombastic presumptive nominee.
The Hoosier State is still a challenge for Bayh, Hershey says, since "Indiana is never a shoo-in for a Democrat." But even an eventual Democratic loss in the contest will have strained Republican efforts and resources.
"He could force Republicans to spend a little more in Indiana than they originally planned," she says.
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