WASHINGTON, D.C. —
Evan Bayh is keeping Indiana Democrats on hold.
Party loyalists longing for a political savior to retake the governor’s office have been waiting on Bayh ever since he abruptly decided to leave the U.S. Senate and political life three years ago.
For now, it appears, they’ll just have to keep waiting.
Despite a hefty campaign war chest and deep nostalgia for his days as a popular centrist Democrat, Bayh says he needs more time to decide whether he’ll try to recapture his old job.
“I think it’s less likely than more likely,” he said. “I haven’t ruled it out.”
Bayh cited family as the reason for delay, during a recent interview in the Washington, D.C., offices of McGuireWoods, a law and lobbying firm he joined when he left the Senate.
He's been busy advising the firm's banking and energy clients, in addition to his work with a New York private equity firm, Apollo Global Management, and with stint as a Fox News contributor.
His twin sons, born during the second of his two terms as governor, are headed off to college this fall. Once they're settled, Bayh said he and his wife, Susan, will have time for a serious conversation about his next steps.
“I will confess, I’m indulging myself,” said Bayh, 58, who appears to have aged well since he was elected as the nation's youngest governor at 32. “My sons are leaving home soon, and I'm trying to be with them as much as I can, because I love them and I'm going to miss them.”
Bayh's indulgence may be trying the patience of state party leaders. While they're focused on state races this November, and mayoral races next year, they're already talking about the 2016 gubernatorial race.
“They really can't wait too much longer for him to decide,” said longtime political scientist Ray Scheele, co-director of the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University.
Money is a prime reason. The last time a challenger tried to oust an incumbent governor in Indiana – when Republican Mitch Daniels beat incumbent Democrat Joe Kernan in 2004 – the campaigns spent more than $31 million combined.
Rampant speculation that first-term Republican Gov. Mike Pence is flirting with a presidential bid, combined with the fact that the conservative Pence only won 49 percent of the vote in 2012, is fueling Democrats' desire to find a winning candidate who can work the kind of magic that Bayh once did.
The son of longtime U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, a liberal Democrat, the more conservative Evan took office in January 1989, after 20 years of Republican governors. After two terms, when he went on to run for Senate, he left a legacy of a centrist governor who actively courted the middle.
He was dubbed, with affection and disdain, a “Republicrat.” As governor, Bayh funneled more money into education, reformed welfare, cut the state workforce and didn't raise taxes. He left the state with a robust economy, low unemployment and a record budget surplus.
Bayh said he loved being governor. It gave him an opportunity, he said, to implement policies and programs that bettered Hoosiers' lives.
Everything else about the office is “an illusion,” he said.
“If you had a magic wand to make me chief executive officer of the state, I'd take it because of the opportunity to help people,” he said. “But that's not how it works.”
Bayh's affection for the job was returned by voters. He won re-election by the largest margin of any governor in modern state history. Term-limited, he ran for an open Senate seat in 1998 and won 64 percent of the vote. In 2004, when Indiana went for Republican George W. Bush with 60 percent of the vote, the Democrat Bayh won his seat again with 62 percent support.
Scheele recalls how Bayh left the governor's office in 1997 with an 80 percent approval rate – a remarkable feat a state that hadn't voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
“Evan knew how to energize people and get them to believe in his message,” Scheele said. “He'd still be a popular candidate.”
Bayh isn't so sure. Among many factors he says he must consider is a changed political landscape.
When Bayh decided not to run for a third Senate term in early 2010, he bemoaned Congress' dysfunction. He said he fears the climate is only getting worse. He cites a recent Pew Research Center survey that found Americans more divided politically, and hardened in positions that make them less likely to favor compromise.
“What used to be viewed as an act of statesmanship now increasingly is viewed as an act of betrayal by the bases of both parties,” he said.
When Bayh was governor, Democrats still played a critical role in the General Assembly, with the power to influence legislation. That's not so now. Republicans have super-majorities in both the state House and Senate. After Republicans' 2010 sweep, they controlled the redistricting process and drew lines to favor their candidates for years to come.
“For Hoosier Democrats, who need to reach out to moderates and thoughtful conservatives, it's a much tougher challenge than for Republicans, who tend to more often than not just have to appeal to their conservative base,” Bayh said.
John Zody, head of the Indiana Democrat Party, is gracious when talking about Bayh. He calls him “a popular governor and Senator” who still has the affection of voters. Party loyalists are grateful for Bayh's legacy, he said, and will honor whatever decision he makes.
But some Democrats may have difficulty forgiving Bayh for his departure from the 2010 Senate race. He decided against seeking a third term just days before the filing deadline, leaving party leaders scrambling for a new candidate. The seat went to a Republican, Sen. Dan Coats, as part of a midterm sweep by GOP candidates. On election night, party activists in Indianapolis booed Bayh.
Some in the party resent the fact that Bayh's since been sitting on almost $10 million in a dormant campaign account. That resentment has been noted by Republicans, including political strategist Pete Seat, former spokesman for the state GOP.
“It's interesting you describe him as keeping Democrats on hold,” Seat said. “I wonder if they're still on the other line, or if they've hung up on him.”
Seat called Bayh's surplus campaign funds a “formidable amount” that would give any opponent pause. But Seat also questions whether young voters and those new to the state, would fall so easily under the Bayh spell. “There are thousands upon thousands of voters who have no recollection on Evan Bayh's governorship,” Seat said.
Bayh disputes criticism that he hasn't done enough to promote Indiana candidates since leaving the Senate. He noted he's doled out $2 million over the last four years to Democratic candidates.
“No one been more generous than me,” he said.
So if not the Indiana governor's race, what else?
Longtime political observers, including Scheele and Seat, note that Bayh may have larger ambitions. In 2008, he weighed a presidential bid before dropping out of consideration. There was speculation that he'd become then-Democratic nominee Barack Obama's running mate.
Scheele says Bayh's strong ties to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could also influence his decision, if she decides to run on the Democratic ticket. Scheele thinks Bayh could be on Clinton's list for the number-two spot or for a cabinet post.
Bayh isn't publicly entertaining that kind of speculation.
“Public service is part of my DNA and part of my family's heritage, which I cherish,” he said. “But there are a lot of different ways to help other people than running for public office.”
Maureen Hayden covers the state for CNHI newspapers in Indiana, including the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.