Brian Howey: When Hoosier U.S. Senate dynasties seize up
Friday, December 02, 2016 1:26 PM
INDIANAPOLIS - For 50 years, from 1963 to 2013, there was either a Bayh or a Lugar representing Indiana in the U.S. Senate. Birch and Evan Bayh won five elections, while Dick Lugar lost a 1974 showdown with the elder Bayh, then rattled off six victories. All told, these two dynasties accrued close to 15 million votes.
Evan and Birch Bayh (top left) just prior to U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly's swearing in in 2013; Richard Lugar at the University of Indianapolis in 2015; and Sens. Lugar and Birch Bayh during the four years they served in the Senate together from 1977 to 1981. (HPI Photo by Mark Curry)
A good part of their combined successes were prodigious political and state organizations that raised the bucks, stroked allies as well as the media, and dealt swift retribution for anyone who got out of line. There was an obsession for detail. I remember as a political reporter for the Elkhart Truth in 1988 when Evan Bayh was running for governor, my phone rang and there was Bayh’s campaign manager, Joe Hogsett, on the line. “How ya doing’?” he asked. “What are you working on. Anything I can help you with as far as our campaign goes?”
The political careers of the two Bayhs and Lugar, all once invincible, ended in defeat.
Birch Bayh lost to Dan Quayle in the 1980 Reagan landslide. He governed in big style as a liberal in a conservative state, authoring two constitutional amendments, Title IX, parting with President Lyndon Johnson on the disastrous Vietnam War while attempting to retire the Electoral College. He never won a Senate race by more than a few percentage points. Because of such risky positions, he stood the chance of getting washed out in a national wave that occurred with son as his campaign manager.
Evan Bayh won a term as secretary of state, two gubernatorial terms, the second in landslide fashion, then won two Senate terms with more than 60 percent of the vote. But Evan Bayh had national ticket ambitions, he governed in a cautious style as to not ruin his chances, and in 2010, sensing the aroused and zealous Tea Party movement and a controversial vote over Obamacare, he ducked a reelection bid that initiated his party’s six-year slide into oblivion.
Like the senior Bayh, Lugar governed at an epic level, rescuing Chrysler Corp in his first term, denouncing the election of Philippine tyrant Ferdinand Marcos, convinced President Reagan to oppose South African apartheid, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, joined forces with Democrat Sam Nunn to systemically round up, destroy and protect Russian nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act was a presidential-level achievement that probably saved civilization from a catastrophic terror attack on a Hiroshima scale.
In 2006, Lugar was so strong, Democrats didn’t even oppose him. Believing an ascension into worldwide statesmanship, Lugar let his state organization wither. County chairmen couldn’t coax him to a Lincoln Dinner, and in 2012 he was defeated in the Republican primary, skewered over the fact he didn’t live here. The irony for a senator who had achieved policy that should have earned him a Nobel Peace Prize is that the Indiana Republican Party hasn’t even bothered to honor him.
Like Lugar, Evan Bayh fell this past November on the residency issue. After leaving the Governor’s Residence in 1997, winning his first Senate term the following year, he moved to Washington and stayed there. He and his family became wealthy, working the inner channels of power in DC. He sat on a $10 million campaign warchest for six years. Had he given John Gregg $2 million in 2012, it could have been a deciding factor in a race he lost by 2%, rendering Mike Pence a historical footnote.
Evan Bayh returned to electoral politics last July. But instead of doing what most politicians do - file for the primary, build relationships with the media and party - he took a short cut instead, nudging Baron Hill out of the race, figuring he could use his hoarded $10 million on a TV air war to return to power. Democrats I talked with this summer and fall had a distinct ambivalence about Bayh’s return. It was all about him, they said. He was stingy. He set in motion the party’s atrophy in rural Indiana that ultimately bred the opening that Donald Trump brilliantly exploited.
The people can sense a phony and a facade, and that was where Evan Bayh de-evolved. He ran TV ads with his twin sons (who lived here only as toddlers and are now at Harvard) wearing Indiana State University and Pacer T-shirts.
In a WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana Poll in September, Bayh’s favorable/unfavorables stood at 48/28 percent. After Republican nominee Todd Young, the National Rifle Associatin and U.S. Chamber hammered him on his residency, his career as a Washington insider, his accumulated wealth (which rose 350 percent during his two Senate terms), and his Obamacare vote, our November poll showed his fav/unfavs falling to an astounding 39/45 percent.
It was an utter evisceration. “Evan Bayh has been ruthlessly defined by them,” said Public Opinion Strategies Pollster Gene Ulm. “It is the destruction of a brand.”
Lessons for future Hoosier senators: Live and work among us. Raise your family here. Shop at Marsh or Martin’s. Build a statewide organization and keep it fine tuned. Seek your millions in votes, not dollars.
As former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson once noted, dynasties don’t end up on a melody, they screech when they seize up. Evan Bayh lost to Todd Young 52-42 percent, and as he exited on Election Night, he strangely sang “Happy Birthday” to his sons.
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.