INDIANAPOLIS – U.S. Senate candidate Evan Bayh stood on a debate stage Tuesday night, facing accusations from his opponent that he’s a Washington insider who has lost his status as a Hoosier.
It was familiar territory for him.
In 1988, when running for governor, the Democrat Bayh defended himself against a Republican lawsuit that claimed the year-and-half he spent working in the nation’s capital disqualified him from seeking Indiana’s top office.
Bayh weathered the storm, handily winning the race to end the GOP’s 20-year hold on the governor’s office. Now he’s hoping to retire the residency question again.
A poll released just before Tuesday’s only debate among the Senate candidates shows voters may not care that Bayh has been living in Washington for the last six years. The Hoosier Survey found 71 percent of voters did not see Bayh’s residency as an issue. Only 21 percent said it would affect their decision of who should represent the state in the Senate. “It’s hard to say he’s not a Hoosier. He’s got the pedigree,” said political science professor Joe Losco, of Ball State University, which commissioned the poll with WISH-TV.
Raising questions about a candidate’s residency is a standard tactic of campaigns to raise doubts about whether an opponent is focused on constituents’ concerns. But it’s used with varying success in Indiana. In the last U.S. Senate race, in 2012, such questions contributed to the downfall of longtime Sen. Richard Lugar. His winning primary opponent, Richard Mourdock, attacked him for staying in hotels whenever he visited Indiana, after making his primary home in Virginia.
Bayh has come under a similar attack by his Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Todd Young.
Early in the race, Young and his supporters spent millions of dollars on television ads highlighting the fact that Bayh owns a modest one-bedroom condominium in Indianapolis but mostly has lived in multi-million dollar homes in Washington since his election to the Senate in 1998. After leaving the Senate, Bayh went to work for a Washington law and lobbying firm.
One ad featured Bayh’s Indianapolis neighbors claiming they’ve never seen him. It includes a clip from a news interview in which Bayh got his Indianapolis address wrong. The Young campaign thinks it’s a winning tactic. Bayh’s early 20-point lead has narrowed since he parachuted into the race in July.
The Hoosier Survey has him six points ahead in a two-way race. But several polls, including the WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana poll released earlier this month, have Bayh and Young close or in a statistical dead heat when Libertarian candidate Lucy Brenton is included.“Evan Bayh’s epic collapse started when it was revealed he was an inactive voter in Indiana who couldn’t remember his own address,” said Jay Kenworthy, a Young spokesman.
Kenworthy said it’s become more of a problem for Bayh following revelations that he’s earned millions of dollars since leaving office.
But there’s some irony in the claim. Young and Bayh are running to replace retiring Republican Sen. Dan Coats, who faced accusations that he was a Washington insider who’d made a fortune as a lobbyist before seeking to reclaim his Senate seat in 2010. Coats, who’d left the Senate in 1999, citing a self-imposed term limit, later served as U.S. ambassador to Germany and worked for seven years as a lobbyist. He’d left Indiana, owning homes in North Carolina and Washington.
But the criticism against Coats didn’t stick in 2010.
Howard County Republican Chairman Craig Dunn said the scenarios are different. Coats entered the race early in the primary stage and faced four opponents who hit him hard on the issue. That helped neutralize the question by the time the general election came around, he said. Bayh, on the other hand, stepped into the race late, after primary winner and former U.S. Rep. Baron Hill bowed out, reportedly under pressure from party leaders.
“Dan Coats didn’t believe he was anointed. There was no attempt by anybody to clear the field,” Dunn said. “He came back like any normal candidate and subjected himself to the hits.”
Political scientist Andy Downs, of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, said Bayh has spent his time ignoring the criticism, denying he’s ever worked as a lobbyist and claiming that he never severed his Indiana roots. “Coats didn’t continue to portray himself as ‘Mr. Hoosier’ the way Evan Bayh has,” said Downs. “So, he’s sort of created the problem for himself.”
Bayh’s campaign staff declined to comment on the issue, instead releasing a statement given to WISH-TV on results of the Hoosier Survey poll showing him ahead of Young. “Evan is dedicated to bringing bipartisan compromise back to Washington, and is grateful for the continued support of Hoosiers,” said the statement from campaign spokesman Ben Ray. “This election is going to be competitive to the end, and we are going to be working hard every day to secure a victory for Hoosier common sense.”