INDIANAPOLIS – This could be the saga of “LeBron Bayh.”
Like a thunderhead brewing in the distance, you could see this one coming. This was the progression: Former state Democratic Chairman Dan Parker announces he will not become a candidate for mayor of Indianapolis, reasoning that the nominee has to have a background in public safety. On Monday morning, Southern District Attorney Joe Hogsett backtracks from an earlier disavowal of candidacy and resigns. A few hours later, former governor Evan Bayh shows up on Monument Circle for a press conference lauding Hogsett.
In a city that had buried two police officers in the past year while enduring a spike in homicides, Bayh’s imprimatur was as good as political gold. Asked if Hogsett should run for mayor, Bayh said, “Well, I hope so. But that’s a decision for him to make. I think he would be a great mayor.”
At this point, Indiana Democrats are like Cleveland. Four years ago — the same year basketball king LeBron James broke Buckeye hearts by taking his talents to South Beach — Sen. Bayh dropped an epic bombshell that he would not seek a third term before taking his talents to Fox News. It set in motion a two-election cycle political disaster that forged Republican super majorities in both General Assembly chambers, as well as the loss of the 2nd and 8th Congressional Districts and Bayh’s Senate seat.
On Monday, the inevitable questions about a 2016 gubernatorial run soon followed, and Bayh was glib, coy and did nothing to tamp down the rampant speculation that he was about to pull off a latter-day LeBron and return to the Hoosier campaign trail. “That election is two and a half years from now,” Bayh said. “We’ve got important races this fall that are going to be important to the state of Indiana, we’ve got mayoral races next year, so first things first.”
What’s really happening is that Bayh is keeping Gov. Mike Pence wondering about whether waging a presidential campaign might be a better career move than possibly facing a re-election bid against a Democrat who left that office with an 80 percent approval rating in 1997.
“I think he’s going to run,” former Indiana Democratic Chairman Robin Winston observed Monday. Bayh did not slam the door on the notion.
Former House Speaker and 2012 gubernatorial nominee John Gregg, however, isn’t buying it. “I don’t believe it,” Gregg said of a Bayh candidacy for governor. “I always felt he’s going to do everything he can to help Mrs. Clinton win the presidency and end up in her cabinet. I can tell you there’s no doubt in my mind."
Another contender, Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott, tells me that Bayh’s equivocation is freezing the field. “He has the luxury of time, but the worst thing he could do is string us along and then not run,” McDermott said. The money stays on the sideline until Bayh and his $9.84 million war chest decide.
Republican sources speaking on background don’t see a returning Bayh as formidable as when he won two gubernatorial terms. Bayh has a Senate record to defend, including his vote for Obamacare. His favorable ratings when he bolted in 2010 were around 55 percent as the tea party gathered its pikes and pitchforks.
By toying with a run for president, Pence may have unintentionally drawn in the most powerful opponent possible, attracted by a potential vacuum. The acumen of the Pence political operation is overrated, though the governor’s ambition is not. Pence passed on a U.S. Senate bid in 2010 that would have put him on a collision course with Bayh, who then opted out, opening the door for Dan Coats’ return. Pence passed on a White House run a year later despite the urgings of the evangelical right, so he has not shown a propensity to take the three-pointer, a point he used to rib Bayh about.
Bayh has been willing to take on the heavyweights, as he did in 1988 against Senate Minority Leader Frank O’Bannon in the gubernatorial primary (the two decided to forge a ticket), Lt. Gov. John Mutz in the ’88 general election, and the 1998 Senate race, when he thought he would be challenging Sen. Coats, who opted to retire. Bayh would be facing a governor who won a first term with only 49 percent of the vote.
Pence may ponder a presidential bid and if he fails early, seek the second term and hope for a vice presidential nod. If that were to happen, the Indiana Republican Central Committee would pick the replacement (and some members dream of Mitch Daniels).
But U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman and his district director, State Sen. Carlin Yoder — both of whom would like to see Pence seek the presidency — do not like the dual candidacy notion. “I think you’re in or you’re out,” Stutzman. “I don’t think you can play this ‘I’m going to run for president and if it doesn’t work, I’m going to run for governor.’ If you’re going to run, you have to run.”
So stay tuned. This could get interesting.
Howey, a former Elkhart Truth reporter, publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.