AGAINST THE GRAIN

Why Democrats Should Worry About Evan Bayh

He’s got a lot in common with Senate candidate Ted Strickland, who struggled once the campaigning began.

Democratic Senate candidate Evan Byah campaigns at a senior living community in Indianapolis.
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
Sept. 9, 2016, 5:17 p.m.

After re­cruit­ing a highly cel­eb­rated Sen­ate can­did­ate with en­vi­able fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings back home, Demo­crats cheered when this former statewide of­fice­hold­er de­cided to reenter polit­ics. He left of­fice after the Re­pub­lic­an wave elec­tion of 2010, and in the en­su­ing years spent much of his time away from his home state. Even so, he star­ted out ahead of his GOP rival in many early polls. One red flag: He hadn’t won a race in nearly a dec­ade, liv­ing more on his past polit­ic­al glory than any re­cent elect­ive ac­com­plish­ments.

I could be writ­ing about former Ohio Gov. Ted Strick­land, the once-cel­eb­rated re­cruit turned Demo­crat­ic polit­ic­al pari­ah. But a sim­il­ar pro­file ap­plies to In­di­ana Sen­ate can­did­ate Evan Bayh, who many pun­dits as­sume will be the Demo­crats’ ma­jor­ity-maker come Novem­ber.

In real­ity, Bayh is vul­ner­able to the same forces that are dog­ging his Demo­crat­ic com­pat­ri­ot. Both are seni­or states­men who are rusty in the mod­ern meth­ods of cam­paign­ing. Neither spent much time in their home states after leav­ing of­fice. Both are run­ning in states with siz­able white, work­ing-class pop­u­la­tions where Don­ald Trump could ac­tu­ally pre­vail in the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion (he’s solidly favored in In­di­ana and a slight un­der­dog in Ohio.) And Strick­land’s lead only dis­sip­ated when Re­pub­lic­ans star­ted un­leash­ing oppo against him months ago—and kept up the bar­rage.

The well-fun­ded GOP cam­paign to define Bayh as a self-in­ter­ested car­pet­bag­ger is only just be­gin­ning in In­di­ana. If any­thing, Bayh could be more tox­ic than Strick­land, who was a res­id­ent fel­low at Har­vard’s In­sti­tute of Polit­ics be­fore spend­ing 10 months at a pro­gress­ive re­search and ad­vocacy group. Bayh went right through the re­volving door in­to big-time Wash­ing­ton lob­by­ing.

Bayh does have ad­vant­ages that Strick­land doesn’t. The Bayh name is a polit­ic­al by­word in In­di­ana, where his fath­er, Birch Bayh, was a three-term sen­at­or. Strick­land has struggled to raise money, and has been sig­ni­fic­antly out­spent by Sen. Rob Port­man and his al­lies in Ohio. Bayh had been sit­ting on a $10 mil­lion stock­pile since he re­tired, and starts out with a crit­ic­al fin­an­cial ad­vant­age against his rival, GOP Rep. Todd Young. Bayh only entered the race in Ju­ly, de­priving Re­pub­lic­ans as much time to define him as they had with Strick­land. And Young, while a sol­id re­cruit, isn’t as polit­ic­ally seasoned as Port­man.

On the oth­er hand, In­di­ana is a much more re­li­ably Re­pub­lic­an state than Ohio. Bayh will need to win a siz­able chunk of Trump sup­port­ers, which is still dif­fi­cult in these po­lar­ized times. The same Demo­crat­ic spin­meisters who dis­miss the pos­sib­il­ity of tick­et-split­ting among Clin­ton sup­port­ers are eager to tout the pres­ence of nu­mer­ous Trump-Bayh voters in In­di­ana. And des­pite Bayh’s icon­ic im­age in his home state, he de­cided to re­tire from the Sen­ate in 2010 out of fear that he could lose reelec­tion—even as he pub­licly spun it as a move out of dis­gust with Wash­ing­ton grid­lock. (In­deed, a pop­u­lar Demo­crat­ic con­gress­man got trounced by 15 points in that same elec­tion.)

At a time when voters claim to be out­raged at the polit­ic­al es­tab­lish­ments of both parties, Bayh will need to ex­plain why he cashed in as a lob­by­ist and barely re­turned home. Re­pub­lic­ans had a field day after he couldn’t even re­call the ad­dress of his In­di­ana con­domin­i­um. Ask former Sen. Richard Lugar of In­di­ana about the dam­age that en­sues when you’re at­tacked for los­ing touch with your con­stitu­ents.

Re­pub­lic­ans are also furi­ously try­ing to dent Bayh’s repu­ta­tion as a bridge-build­ing mod­er­ate. The U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, which once sup­por­ted Bayh, is now back­ing Young and air­ing ads against the former sen­at­or. One re­cent ad from the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee pins him as the de­cis­ive vote for Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law, which was a pivotal reas­on why Demo­crats lost four of the state’s 11 con­gres­sion­al seats in the 2010 midterms. An­oth­er Re­pub­lic­an spot at­tacks him for sup­port­ing a na­tion­al en­ergy tax. Strick­land, who ran for reelec­tion as gov­ernor that same year in Ohio, was badly dam­aged by these same na­tion­al is­sues, thanks to the Demo­crat­ic Party’s left­ward drift un­der Obama.

Ohio’s Sen­ate race de­veloped early be­cause of Port­man’s cash-flush cam­paign ac­count. In­di­ana’s Sen­ate race is only just be­gin­ning. Demo­crats ar­gue that’s an ad­vant­age since Re­pub­lic­ans have less time to take Bayh down. But the TV war has barely be­gun. The Sen­ate Lead­er­ship Fund is spend­ing $4 mil­lion in ads over the next month to re­mind voters of Bayh’s checkered re­cord. Des­pite Bayh’s huge war chest, Re­pub­lic­an groups are keep­ing pace on the air­waves, ac­cord­ing to a Demo­crat­ic source.

A re­spec­ted WTHR/Howey poll re­leased Fri­day showed Bayh with a four-point lead, down from sev­en points in a Mon­mouth poll a month ago and a far cry from the double-di­git lead he re­cently held in Demo­crat­ic sur­veys. He’s only polling at 44 per­cent, des­pite near-uni­ver­sal name iden­ti­fic­a­tion. If Re­pub­lic­ans can keep chip­ping away at Bayh’s lead with car­pet­bag­ger at­tack lines, it would give them a des­per­ately-needed life­line in their bid to save their Sen­ate ma­jor­ity.

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