Evan Bayh Announces Retirement

The surprise announcement today (February 15) by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) that he will not seek re-election immediately spells a likely net gain for Republicans in the Senate.  With the filing deadline tomorrow at noon, it is highly unlikely — in fact, out of the question — that any Democrat will have the required signatures from voters (500 from each of Indiana’s nine congressional districts) to qualify for the May primary ballot.  

That means Hoosier Democrats will have to pick a nominee for the seat Bayh won twice with ease (and that his father Birch Bayh held from 1962-80) at their state convention in June. And that is easier said than done, sources in Indianapolis told me.  As one political consultant put it soon after the news of Bayh’s exit spread, “Democrats hold no state offices at all and have no up and coming stars in the state legislature.  (State House) Speaker Pat Bauer, for example, has never been considered a statewide contender.  And of the three House Members that are being talked of, Brad Ellsworth and Joe Donnelly will stay where they are if they are smart and Baron Hill in the 9th District might just run because polls show him losing to any Republican running.”

“It doesn’t look bright and promising for the Democrats after Bayh,” he concluded, adding that the two Democrats who could have a chance in November are former Gov. Joe Kernan of South Bend and former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson.  But even with those two, Democrats would be nominating a Senate hopeful who tasted defeat at his last trip to the polls; Kernan lost to Republican Mitch Daniels in ’04, and Peterson was unseated from office in ’07.

As for Republicans, conservative former Sen. (1989-98) Dan Coats has to be given some credit for prophecy or just good instincts.  Twelve years after he retired from the seat that was won by former two-term Gov. Bayh, the 66-year-old Coats signaled two weeks ago he would make a political comeback.  In short order, he has assembled a team that includes Kevin Kellems, a former top aide to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and former Vice President Dick Cheney, and Anne Hathaway, onetime chief of staff at the Republican National Committee.  Team Coats is expected to file far more than the necessary signatures tomorrow.

Coats, of course, faces a primary contest in May from former Rep. (1974-2006) John Hostettler and State Sen. Marlin Stutzman.  Both are considered strong conservatives.  Hostettler, who opposed the 2003 prescription drug package backed by the Bush Administration and the no-child-left-behind federal education program, has a following among Indiana’s budding tea party movement.  Stutzman has long been considered a “comer” in state politics.  But for now, Coats must be considered the favorite.

As to why Bayh said “bye-bye,” the speculation is starting.  Many say that he never got over not being picked as Barack Obama’s running mate in ’08.  Other Bay watchers insist that the resounding criticism he received for voting for the Senate health care package that passed in December had an effect on him.  When subsequent polls showed him in unusually close contests with Hostettler and other potential GOP candidates, the senator was not happy.  Clearly, he did not want to go out the way his father did in 1980, when he lost a fourth term bid to Republican Dan Quayle.

Much like the exit of Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) earlier this year, the immediate result of Bayh’s stunning departure appears to be what the Obama White House wanted least when they lobbied him to back the health care package:  a likely Republican pickup of a Senate seat.