By Jim Ellis
July 13, 2016 — The big political news on Monday saw the Democrats engineering a surprise Senate comeback. Former Indiana senator and governor, Evan Bayh, confirmed he will now enter the Hoosier State’s open federal statewide campaign. Earlier, ex-US Rep. Baron Hill (D-IN-9), who won the Democratic nomination in the May 3 Senate primary, withdrew from the race thus allowing the party leaders to name his replacement. The candidate swap had to be completed before close of business on July 15, the state deadline for ballot qualification.
It’s a strong Democratic move clearly in two ways, but the Bayh political re-entry also places him in a potentially awkward position.
First, the Democratic leaders needed to find a way to make the open Indiana race competitive. It was painfully clear that Hill, whose campaign was basically moribund, was failing to give Republican nominee Todd Young, the current 9th District congressman, a serious run, so they opted for ex-Sen. Bayh.
Second, though at the time of his exit from the political scene six years ago Democratic leaders were incensed that Bayh would not part with any of the $9-plus million he kept in his campaign account, they are now pleased to see this huge asset for their new candidate and party.
Clearly, any candidate starting with that much money at his disposal on the first day of campaigning is in a superior position, so it is now reasonable to assume that the Democrats will likely outspend Young. We will see what the latter’s treasury looks like in the next couple of days. Second quarter financial disclosure statements are due on July 15. The congressman had more than $1 million in his account in the pre-primary report, but we can assume most of that was spent in securing the Republican nomination. Both parties will see considerable spending from Super PACs.
Though Bayh is undoubtedly a strong candidate and far superior to anyone his party could field, the new pairing does not guarantee a Democratic victory. The state is likely to vote Republican in the presidential election, and the Hillary Clinton campaign shows no sign of even targeting Indiana despite then-Sen. Barack Obama scoring the unlikeliest of one-point upset wins in 2008. (Indiana returned to the Republican column in 2012, with a 54-44 percent Mitt Romney win; 2008 marked the first time Hoosier voters supported the Democratic candidate since the 1964 presidential contest.)
The Bayh return is curious. When he retired in 2010, he expressed frustration with the partisan aspect of Congress, even though his party controlled the White House and the Senate at the time. Arguably, the partisan divide is worse today than in 2010, and his party is currently in the minority and may well stay there in the next Congress.
He will also have to face more serious questions about potential conflicts of interest concerning his wife’s service on multiple corporate boards, a subject that he was never forced to fully answer in the past. In the new age of Super PACs, such a situation will be repeatedly vetted through a spate of third party commercials.
Additionally, the last time that Bayh was in a competitive campaign was 18 years ago, when Sen. Dan Coats (R) retired that year for the first time. Obviously, Bayh assuming the Senate seat was made much easier not having to face an incumbent. Therefore, one could argue that the last truly contested campaign Bayh won is all the way back in 1988 when he first won the governor’s race. Obviously, much is different in today’s campaign world, so this current race will carry tactics and a tone that Bayh has not previously faced.
This particular Indiana Senate seat has been traded between Coats and Bayh since 1988. Sen. Coats was first elected that year and retired in the 1998 election. Sen. Bayh then held the seat until he decided not to seek re-election in 2010, which prompted Sen. Coats’ return. Now that Coats is again retiring, Bayh attempts to make his post-retirement return.