Pete Seat: Bye, Bayh
Wednesday, June 11, 2014 11:07 AM
INDIANAPOLIS – On the same weekend Indiana Democrats gathered in the Circle City for their biennial convention, Evan Bayh sat snugly behind a glass topped table on the set of Fox News Sunday in Washington, D.C. As he opined on topics such as Hillary Clinton’s forthcoming book and the Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl prisoner exchange, John Gregg shook the hands of adoring crowds of the party faithful, many wearing stickers declaring their support for repeat Gregg gubernatorial run in 2016.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Democrats were supposed to be in a state of permanent suspension awaiting word from Washington, or Muncie, or wherever Bayh is at any given moment, about his own potential return to the Statehouse.
After 20 years of Republican control of the governor’s office, Bayh’s election to the post in 1988 was a sign of Democratic resurgence. But Indiana Democrats, with Bayh’s implicit endorsement, got caught up in a cult of personality. Everything was about Evan ... that is until now, in what might be the world’s first truly mutual breakup since a famous episode of Seinfeld pioneered the idea that two parties could amicably part ways.
According to reports, delegates were more interested in glad-handing with Gregg and flirting with Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott, another aspiring candidate for governor, than engaging in what had been one of the most intriguing political parlor games: Whether or not Bayh, the former governor and former U.S. Senator, would mount another campaign for his old job.
He certainly has the cash to give it another go. Campaign filings show a whopping $9.84 million resting comfortably in the Bayh for Senate federal campaign account which, as law allows, could be transferred in a one-time payment to a state-based campaign for governor.
The Center for Public Integrity recently called on Bayh to divest himself of that money and donate it to charity. He refused saying, “Because the future is difficult to predict, I don’t want to foreclose any possibilities at this time.”
Of course, $9.84 million can keep a lot of futures open to Bayh, but the tea leaves show those futures have little to do with Indiana.
For years, he would swoop into airports around the state to vocalize his support for candidates in person. Once the cameras turned off though, he was back on the plane and off to the next stop.
In 2010, he was set to embark on a campaign of his own, his re-election to the U.S. Senate seat he recaptured on behalf of the Bayh name in 1998. It should have been a cake-walk for someone who never did anything to upset anyone or, frankly, anything to make them cheer either.
But then, at the 11th hour, just days after news broke that former U.S. Senator and ambassador to Germany Dan Coats planned a clash of the titans comeback, Bayh bowed out leaving Democrats in a lurch to quickly regroup and anoint a candidate who could mount a credible statewide campaign in a matter of weeks. They found Brad Ellsworth, the 8th district congressman and former Vanderburgh County sheriff, who was quickly crowned the nominee by 38 members of the Indiana Democratic Party State Central Committee.
Maybe Bayh felt slightly guilty that year as he dipped into his then-$10-plus million campaign fund to donate $500,000 to the Indiana Democratic Party to help soften the blow of Ellsworth’s impending 15-point defeat.
Bayh was even less of a help in 2012. Sure, Democrats had a few successes of their own with Joe Donnelly and Glenda Ritz’s respective elections as U.S. Senator and superintendent of public instruction, but if he had chosen to be, Bayh could have been kingmaker. He could have thrown a few million towards either – or both – of them and been given credit for the victories.
Instead, he gave the state party $300,000 over two donations in the final month of the race, and peppered smaller contributions around the country to former colleagues who needed a little Bayh-boost of their own. This cycle, his only donation has gone to a place about as far away from Indiana as you can get and still be in the United States – Alaska’s Mark Begich.
So rather than visit his home state to audition to be governor yet again, Bayh spent convention weekend articulating the least incoherent case for why Hillary Clinton should be president.
In effect, it was as if he was auditioning for the role of Clinton’s surrogate-in-chief right there on national TV. Of course, it was the job that eluded him in 2008 when Barack Obama overcame the foregone conclusion that was a Clinton nomination.
The question is, if Hillary Clinton does in fact run, will $9.84 million be enough to get the job he covets this time? Or will Hillary, like Indiana Democrats, break up with him too?
Pete Seat is senior project manager at the Indianapolis-based Hathaway Strategies and author of the recently published book The War on Millennials. He was previously a spokesman for President George W. Bush, U.S. Sen. Dan Coats and the Indiana Republican Party.