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.