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State Dems Ponder Next Step Following Evan Bayh’s Departure

Brian Vargus

Photo: Stan Jastrzebski

IUPUI Political Science Professor Brian Vargus at work in his office in Indianapolis.

Following the retirement of Indiana’s junior senator, Evan Bayh, the state’s Democratic party is forced to replace the man who’s been its most notable figure for the last two decades.  Bayh’s retirement comes after a 2008 election which saw a Democrat win the state in the presidential election for the first time in more than 40 years – seeming to signal renewed support for Democrats in this Republican stronghold.  But depending on who you believe, Bayh’s absence may mean the start of a string of shaky tickets for the Democrats, or it may mean nothing at all.

Since his election as Indiana’s Secretary of State in 1986, Evan Bayh has won all five elections where he’s appeared on the ballot and has only been out of office for two years, after being term-limited as the Hoosier State’s governor.

“For a long time, among Democrats in Indiana, Evan Bayh was certainly the bright, shining light,” said IUPUI political science professor Brian 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.”

And in classrooms at Indiana University, graduate students are busy studying a race many had conceded to Bayh just a few weeks ago.

“As far as the results, it’s basically…it probably will result in another Republican senator, so that should be a pretty significant swing,” said Mitchell Krumm, a graduate student from Granville, Ohio.  “So as a Republican, it’s actually pretty good news.”

But don’t tell that to Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker, a former Bayh Chief of Staff.

“I think that the Bayh brand of being a centrist, a Democrat, socially progressive but also fiscally conservative – fiscally responsible – is I think something that has sold for quite a long time here in Indiana,” Parker said.  “And I think given all the challenges that we face both as a state and a country, I think that that kind of brand can sell in the future.”

And the most prominent candidate for the Democratic nomination, Evansville congressman Brad Ellsworth, fits that mold…which Brian Vargus said could be a bad thing…

“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 and they may not be enthused in working for him.”

The 32 members of the state’s Democratic Central Committee will meet sometime after the state’s May 4th primary to choose a candidate, and state law forbids Parker from commenting on a specific candidate before then.  But whoever the Democrats eventually nominate will not have the same statewide name recognition as Bayh, meaning there will be ramifications for the rest of the state ticket, Vargus said.

“Obviously Evan Bayh’s defection – to wherever he thinks he’s defecting– creates a number of chancy seats to hold for the Democrats – a lot of them,” he said.  “Whatever they do is a gamble and they have to carefully calculate it and they’re going to have to work a lot harder to hold onto seats than they thought they were going to.”

Just two years ago, Barack Obama became the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to carry the state in the presidential election and five of the nine House seats in this very red state remained blue.  But has Bayh’s retirement helped erode that momentum as quickly as it seemed to appear?  To listen to Nichole Bauer, a graduate student from Juneau, Alaska and to Democratic Chairman Dan Parker, the idea of momentum is a myth.

“Evan Bayh was a very moderate Democrat and so I think that that kind of general image of Indiana and its role in national politics or in presidential elections is as a conservative, Republican-leaning state,” Bauer said. “I don’t think that changes at all.

Said Parker: “What I hear people say is ‘I want somebody who understands what I’m going through.’ And so I think what you’re going to see as this Senate race builds up is that the Democratic party candidate understands the concerns of everyday Hoosiers and you’re going to have a Republican candidate who’s either completely out of the mainstream or somebody who’s spent the last 12 years lobbying for the very interests that got us here in the first place.”

In fact, Bauer’s colleague Nate Birkhead, a native of Colorado Springs, said an historical view of the election could diminish even further Bayh’s role in state politics and blunt any deleterious effect on his party.

“Just sort of the dynamic nature of partisanship and ideology doesn’t allow us to make these sorts of absolute statements about the continuation of Indiana as a predominantly Republican state.”

Five Republicans, including former congressman John Hostettler and the man Bayh replaced — former Senator Dan Coats — have declared for the GOP Senate primary.  Ellsworth, Hammond mayor Thomas McDermott and Gary school board member Darren Washington will attempt to curry favor with Democratic insiders to be appointed their party’s nominee.  If a Democrat wins, saidIndianapolis native and IU poli sci student Jacob Bower-Bir, you can bet he’ll look familiar.

“Whoever’s going to replace Bayh is going to be ‘Bayh light’,” he said.

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