For Want of a Bayh in Indiana

Former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh’s retirement kicked off a number of GOP pickups and a longing for a new Democratic figurehead.
by | February 17, 2011

There's an old proverb that goes:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Indiana Democrats can hardly be blamed for recalling that proverb when thinking about the 2010 election in their state.

Just two years ago, President Barack Obama won Indiana for the Democrats for the first time since Lyndon B. Johnson's landslide in 1964. Yet last fall, Democratic success in Indiana seemed a distant memory, as the state party experienced a brutal midterm election. The GOP seized control of the state House, expanded its state Senate majority, and flipped a U.S. Senate seat and two U.S. House seats.

Clearly, it was a bad year to be a Democrat in Indiana, as it was through most of the Midwest. It was a particularly bad year for Democratic U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh to choose to retire.

Not only did the retirement of the popular senator and former governor give Republicans a golden opportunity to seize his Senate seat, but Bayh's departure also became the proverbial nail that set in motion a cascade of Democratic losses, undercutting a generation of Democratic political experience in the Hoosier State:

  • In the race to succeed Bayh in the U.S. Senate, former Republican Sen. Dan Coats defeated Democratic Rep. Brad Ellsworth (IN-8), 55 percent-40 percent.
  • In the race to fill Ellsworth's seat in the U.S. House, Republican Larry Bucshon defeated Democratic state Rep. William Trent Van Haaften, 58 percent-37 percent.
  • In the race to fill Van Haaften's District 76 seat in the state House, Republican Wendy McNamara defeated Democratic state Sen. Bob Deig by a mere four votes. (According to an Indiana Democratic source, Deig wanted to be in the majority -- which is what the Democrats had in the state House before they lost it in the 2010 elections. The Democrats were already a minority in the state Senate.)
  • In the race to fill Deig's District 49 state Senate seat, Republican Jim Tomes defeated Democrat Patricia Avery, 52 percent-48 percent.

Avery didn't have to vacate another seat to make her state Senate run. But her husband, state Rep. Dennis Avery, chose (as Bayh did) to make 2010 the year he retired, after holding the District 75 seat in the state House for more than three decades. On Election Day, the Republicans also flipped Dennis Avery's seat, as Ronald Bacon defeated Democrat Michael Goebel, 51 percent-49 percent.

Most of the Democratic seats lost in this cascade came from southwest Indiana, around Evansville -- once a place where many moderate-to-conservative Democrats were able to win office, but now a region where Republicans appear to be tightening their grip. In 2010, the Democrats also lost the neighboring 9th Congressional District, a seat that Baron Hill had held despite strong GOP challenges year after year. The seat is now occupied by Republican Todd Young.

"Bayh's withdrawal was a disaster for the Democrats," said Brian Vargus, a political scientist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. "The chain of loses all occurred in southern Indiana. This was a major setback for the Democrats."

The Democrats' loss of control in the state House, combined with wider GOP margins in the state Senate, comes at an especially bad time for the party, since the GOP will be able to redraw state legislative and congressional districts this year, largely unfettered. This year's remapping could hamper a Democratic comeback for at least another 10 years.

Bayh, in a December interview with the Evansville Courier-Press, said that Democrats were facing a rough road in 2010 regardless of whether he had decided to retire or not.

"If I'd run I might have saved myself, but I wouldn't have saved anybody else, and I don't think it would have made a difference for (Ellsworth) or whoever our nominee ended up being," he told the newspaper. "... This was a (Republican) tide sweeping the country."

Indiana Democratic Party chairman Dan Parker didn't seek to minimize the damage inflicted on his party on Election Day.

"Southern Indiana historically has been part of the Democratic base in the legislature, so clearly the losses we suffered down there hurt," he said. "A lot of the results had more to do with the economy and the unemployment rate and frustration with the party in power in Washington than with any of the candidates specifically."

Parker added that he's optimistic that his party will do better in 2012 -- a presidential-election year, when Democratic turnout tends to be stronger. He added that Ellsworth and Van Haaften should have "a future in elected office."

State Republican Party chairman Eric Holcomb, though pleased with the results, stopped well short of declaring the 2010 election a point of no return for southern Indiana Democrats.

"We have always said that it's not just about getting elected, but what you do after getting elected," he said. "That's why the jury is still out."

The Republicans' electoral dominance in 2010 and the lack of a Democrat in higher office create a concern for Dems, according to Jennifer Wagner, a former Indiana Democratic Party spokeswoman now working as a consultant. In her Jan. 22 column in the Indianapolis Business Journal, she wrote that newly elected officials have a responsibility to create a new political generation. And without a figurehead, her "generation doesn't really have a 'generation.' At least not yet."

Wagner praised Bayh for being a mentor and patron to Indiana Democrats. (Bayh himself was groomed for a political career by his father, former Sen. Birch Bayh, meaning that their dynasty stretches back to the early 1960s.) However, the younger Bayh's transition into a more off-stage role does present a rebuilding opportunity for the party, Wagner wrote.

"For me, especially given Bayh's departure from public office for the foreseeable future, the creation of a network of political operatives who feel like they're all part of the same team is a critical goal over the next two years leading up to the 2012 election cycle," she wrote.

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