First, let us acknowledge a few uncomfortable truths about former Senator Evan Bayh, who just scrambled Indiana politics with the news that, any second now, he will replace former Representative Baron Hill as the Democratic Senate nominee. (The deal is not yet done, but Hill withdrew from the race Monday, and no one is bothering to be coy about Bayh’s plans—though most insist on speaking off the record at this sensitive stage.)
Number one: Bayh, a two-term governor turned two-term senator, is a quitter. In February 2010, in the midst of his Senate reelection campaign, Bayh announced that he had lost his taste for the game and would retire at the end of his term. He was, the senator explained in The New York Times, bone-weary of Congress’s “institutional inertia,” “strident partisanship,” “unyielding ideology,” and “corrosive” campaign-finance system. He charged that both Congress and the American public needed “a new spirit of devotion to the national welfare beyond party or self-interest,” and he told The Washington Post that he was seeking “a greater sense of satisfaction about making a difference every day.” He mused that he would probably join some worthy foundation or—better still—teach!
Number two: Bayh instead became a shameless sell-out. In January 2011, he stepped straight from the Senate into lucrative posts as a partner and “strategic adviser” at a prominent law/lobbying firm and as a “senior adviser” with a private-equity firm. Two months later, he signed on as a contributor to Fox News. By that June, he had joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as a member of its anti-regulatory team. How’s that for making a difference?
Number three: The guy is crushingly boring. I say this not because Bayh is centrist or bipartisan or pragmatic or yet another middle-aged white guy with good hair and a nice smile. He is, to be sure, all of those things. But Bayh is something much, much more: the human equivalent of Ambien—anodyne to a degree that one normally associates with staff meetings, politicians’ autobiographies, and televised golf.
Those things noted, Bayh also may be just the man to win Indiana and help his party in its quest to retake the Senate—and not just because he has nearly $10 million in campaign cash left over from 2010. (Not that the money isn’t awesome, mind you.) Bayh’s peculiar charms have always played well with Hoosiers. And now, with Trumpsanity making an awful lot of people jittery, even some of Bayh’s more pronounced political warts could wind up being advantages.
It’s hard to overestimate how noxious progressives find Bayh, with his pro-business, mushy-middle politics. He’s the guy you look to if you feel passionately about cutting the estate tax, they snark. And that’s before you factor in Bayh’s post-Senate tenure of pro-corporate shilling.
Yet even his harshest Democratic critics acknowledge that Indiana is a solidly red state unlikely to pick a senator with the ideological profile of, say, Elizabeth Warren. Bayh’s middle-of-the-roadness, say party insiders, speaks to Indiana voters—as does his willingness to reach across the aisle and buck his own leadership.
For their part, Republicans stand ready to smack the bejeezus out of Bayh for his abrupt flight from the Senate. Monday afternoon, just a few hours after the Bayh news broke, the National Republican Senatorial Committee fired off a statement, sneering, “Evan Bayh is a lobbyist who backed the Obama agenda 96 percent of the time as he left the Senate in 2010, knowing he couldn’t win re-election thanks to his support for the toxic Democrat agenda.”
Democrats recognize that Bayh will need to explain storming out of the Senate in a high-profile fit of pique. But they insist that he can turn the experience to his advantage. After all, who among the American electorate doesn’t look at Congress today with some mixture of fear, loathing, disgust, and exasperation? With a bit of clever messaging, Bayh can credit his journey with helping him realize that, no matter how FUBAR the system seems, giving up on it is not an option.
Then there’s the issue of Bayh’s vanilla staidness-verging-on-somnolence. Often, such a demeanor can prove politically problematic, especially when it comes time to get out the vote. But in these unsettling times, with stories of racial tension and gun violence on the news every other night, partisan ugliness approaching DEFCON 2, and Trump behaving as though he is the second coming of Mussolini, much of the American public is on the verge of a collective anxiety attack. (The much-reported spike in Google searches for information on moving to Canada is kind of funny but also kind of sad.) Those not angry enough to blow up the system themselves are worried about the politicians—and voters—who are.
Bayh, by contrast, is less bomb-thrower than balm. Steady, pragmatic, and moderate, his shtick has always been that he is the grown-up in the room. (Earlier this year, Bayh was named a national co-chair of the anti-partisanship, “problem-solving” group No Labels.) Better still, in Indiana, he is the definition of a known quantity. The Bayh brand—established by his dad, former Senator Birch Bayh, when Evan was still a nipper—has been golden in the state for decades. People know it. They trust it. Evan Bayh won both his 1998 and 2004 Senate elections with more than 60 percent of the vote. He is comfortable with Indiana, and its voters are comfortable with him.
Evan Bayh: the dull but sensible uncle you have always counted on.
It’s not a campaign slogan to send a thrill up anyone’s leg. But Democrats are betting it will resonate in this discombobulating election season—perhaps well enough to win them back the Senate.
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