Evan Bayh: Indiana Democrats need to find a replacement fast

Sen. Evan Bayh's last-minute announcement that he won't run for reelection means state party leaders will have to find a candidate. In Indiana, whoever that is will have to be a relatively conservative Democrat who can work with Republicans.

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana talks with his family following a news conference announcing he will not seek re-election in Indianapolis, Monday, Feb. 15. Bayh, a centrist Democrat from a Republican-leaning state, is serving his second six-year term in the Senate.
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The surprise announcement that Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana will not run for another term is forcing state Democrats to find a replacement with similar appeal – and they want to do it fast.

“They’re kind of scrambling,” says Brian Vargus, who teaches political science at Indiana University. “The Democrats are trying to pick the strongest person they can.”

That person needs to be especially tailored for Indiana, a state where Democrats win only when they are fiscally conservative, move to the center on divisive issues like healthcare and taxes, and show they can work with Republicans – as Mr. Bayh did when, as a two-term governor, he created legislation with a majority Republican state Senate and House.

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“Bayh is no flaming liberal. [His replacement candidate] is going to have to look like a moderate-to-conservative Democrat and will have to stand against Washington and [President] Obama,” says Mr. Vargus.

Democrats frequently vote Republican

The choice is crucial because Indiana voters are not as divided by political party and will easily vote Republican if they feel the Democratic choice is unfamiliar or suspect on the issues.

With the exception of electing Bayh, former governor Frank O’Bannon, and, in the 2008 presidential election, Mr. Obama, Indiana voters do not favor Democratic candidates. In fact, the state turned blue only three times in presidential elections over the last century.

Speculation is rampant in the state, where media pundits and insiders are debating who has the name recognition and fund-raising skills. Names mentioned range from US Reps. Brad Ellsworth of Evansville and Baron Hill of Seymour, to rocker John Mellencamp, a native and resident of the state.

Vargus says Representative Ellsworth is a likely choice because of his strong conservative record and anti-abortion stance. However, Representative Hill is better known throughout the state, not just in the southern region which Ellsworth represents and where moderate Democrats play best.

Will Bayh pick his own replacement?

Some say the debate over who will get the party nod is unnecessary because it’s more than likely that Bayh has already told party officials whom he wants to run in his place.

“I don’t believe for one second, as methodical as Evan Bayh is, that he would step down to keep the party in the lurch without a carefully crafted plan,” says Abdul Hakim-Shabazz, who hosts a morning talk show in Indianapolis and operates a political blog. “This is Evan Bayh’s Democratic Party. Those guys don’t sneeze without his permission or blessing.”

Bayh has been the public face of Indiana Democrats since 1999, when he was elected secretary of state, which led to a quick rise as governor and then US senator.

He remains popular and is credited with revitalizing the party in the state by showing voters that Democrats can be populists regarding job creation, the environment, and education but swing conservative when it comes to taxes and national defense.

“The Bayh family name in Indiana is the same as Kennedy in Massachusetts or Goldwater in Arizona,” says Mr. Hakim-Shabazz.

GOP battle to pick its candidate

Five Republicans are squared off for a May 4 primary, and it has been a contentious race. Democrats have until June to pick a replacement for the November midterm election, although state party officials have made it clear they want to move fast.

“The sooner the better,” Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker told the Indianapolis Star Wednesday.

At the candidate’s disposal may be Bayh’s $16 million campaign war chest, which he is allowed to distribute to his replacement. If that doesn’t happen, there is speculation he may be prepping a race for state governor in 2012. Says Vargus, one thing is certain about his decision: “It’ll tell you a lot about what his future plans are.”

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