NASHVILLE, Ind. – Sometime between Labor Day and Sept. 10 when he appears at a Northwest Indiana One Region event, Evan Bayh is expected to make a decision that will have emphatic political ramifications for Indiana over the next decade.
The decision is whether he will seek a third term as governor. It will be as important as the 2002 decision Mitch Daniels made to enter the 2004 gubernatorial race, or Bayh’s 1987 decision to run for the first time. Both those decisions ushered in more than a decade of political dominance, with Bayh igniting a 16-year Democratic gubernatorial and Daniels’ decision that cued up a 12-year run for the GOP that extends to this very day.
Current conventional wisdom that dominated the Indiana Democratic Editorial Association convention last weekend in French Lick was that Bayh won’t run. In two recent interviews, Bayh called a candidacy “unlikely.” The probable calculus running through Bayh’s mind are the two super majority legislative chambers where Republicans hold a 69-31 House advantage and 37-13 in the Senate that would make governing tough. He cited “polarization” in questioning whether he could effectively govern.
Reacting to a potential bid, Republicans have asserted with dogged determination that Bayh won’t run, essentially asking, “Why would he want to do that?” The profound wishing in GOP camps that Bayh won’t run is pronounced whistling past the graveyard. Bayh is the one Democrat who could clear the field, raise mega bucks, and make a credible appeal to moderates and independents who decide Indiana elections.
However, some influential Democratic sources tell me they are not sure Bayh has made a decision. “I would hope that is the case,” said Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who along with John Gregg are planning 2016 runs, but have seen money hard to raise as long as Bayh is potentially in the equation. “Otherwise why wouldn’t he have announced he wasn’t running by now?”
Another influential Democrat, speaking on background, said, “I’m not sure he knows.” This Democrat makes the case that Bayh’s doubts about his effectiveness in the face of daunting Republican majorities doesn’t take into account the former governor’s own track record of igniting what he called the “white hot heat of public opinion” when seeking policy initiatives often opposed by a hostile Senate Republican majority during his eight years in office. “He has had the ability to go to the public and get support in places like Rochester,” this Democrat said. “He has the unique ability to build that consensus with moderates and independents.”
Former Indiana Democratic chairman Dan Parker told me that after Bayh dropped his twin sons off at Harvard on Aug. 24, he and wife Susan went to New York, took in a play, and started to sort through what kind of empty nest they would have.
With Bayh on the ticket, his long coattails pulled in between three and five new House seats when he ran. At that pace, Indiana Democrats wouldn’t seize a House majority in four election cycles. But Indiana Republicans have presided with monolithic power in an era where the Hoosier middle class has been hammered, with per capita income declining 13 percent at a time when the GOP majorities have achieved a series of tax cuts for corporations, financial institutions, and wealthy farmers and ranchers. The Indiana middle class endured almost five years of a jobless rate over 8 percent, saw their home values drop precipitously, and many live with adult offspring and aging parents.
While the GOP controls 69 House seats, there is a sizable economic conservative faction in the lower Chamber that would be open to the kind of consensus Bayh was able to achieve in the 1990s when he forged a record excise tax cut, reformed the social safety net and made education a top priority. Those fissures became evident during the constitutional marriage amendment debate last winter, with 23 House Republicans breaking against the controversial second sentence in that amendment.
Democrats like Gregg say Bayh is really angling for a potential cabinet post in a Hillary Clinton presidency. But another side of that is a Bayh gubernatorial candidacy has the potential of pulling Indiana’s 12 Electoral College votes into her column.
Then there is the scenario of a presidential (or vice presidential) nomination for Gov. Mike Pence in 2016. While Bayh is under pressure to make a decision, Pence is actually under a more arduous deadline if he is serious about a run for the national ticket.
Will Bayh run? The conventional wisdom is “no.” But Bayh has shocked us before, the last time in 2010, abruptly abandoning his U.S. Senate re-election bid at the 11th hour that only slickened Indiana Democrats’ two-cycle descent into super minority status.
In his two terms as governor, the perception was that most policy initiatives came through the prism of a future presidential bid. Hoosier voters are watching Pence govern in similar style. Now that Bayh is back on his meds (as he puts it about his past presidential aspirations), the most intriguing question that may never be answered is how he would rule outside that realm if he did, indeed, decide to come back home again and serve.
Howey, a former Elkhart Truth reporter, publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.