Yesterday’s announcement by U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh that he wouldn’t seek a third term is one more sign that Democrats will face difficulties keeping full control of Congress after Election Day. But if Democrat incumbents (and even a few Republicans) need any more harbingers of what may in store for them by November — and beyond — they merely need to look at what else has been happening in Indiana, which once again puts lie to the inside-the-Beltway belief that it is merely the sleepy home of John Mellencamp and the Indianapolis Colts.
Just within the past three months, Bayh, the state’s junior U.S. Senator, went from being among the Democrats’ strongest incumbents to facing the possibility of suffering the same humiliating defeat as his father did 30 years ago at the hands of future vice president J. Danforth Quayle. The state Democratic Party, along with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is now seeking a candidate with enough money and political backing to stave off what many see as a likely Republican victory.
Another incumbent, Republican Congressman Steve Buyer, decided not to run for re-election amid questions about the financial dealings of a foundation he controls. Even before the allegations surrounding the Frontier Educational Foundation — which gave a mere $10,500 in grants (nearly all to a lobbyist for Indianapolis pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly) despite $880,000 in fundraising — took hold, voters in the Hoosier State’s 4th Congressional District were tiring of Buyer’s antics; this included 400 missed votes in the past six years, which ranks him among the tardiest members of Congress.
Other Hoosier State congressional incumbents may face their own reckoning at the polls. Congressman Pete Visclosky, a longtime Democrat who has represented Gary and the rest of Northern Indiana, also finds himself under investigation for his ties to the scandal-plagued (and now-defunct) lobbying firm PMA Group. Only the lack of a strong opponent, either within his party or on the Republican side, allows for Visclosky to remain in office. His Republican colleague, Dan Burton, whose absences to attend golf outings are nearly as shameless as his past philandering and bizarre investigations of pharmaceuticals over unscientific claims that their vaccines cause autism, may not be so lucky: Just 28 percent of likely voters surveyed in January by pollster Bellwether Research backed the 14-term U.S. representative for re-election, versus a lowly 35 percent last year.
Michael Murphy, an Indiana state representative who is among Burton’s challengers for the Republican nomination (which, given the district’s heavily Republican gerrymandering, is tantamount to winning the entire race), declared to political columnist Brian Howey that “Lee Atwater used to say that if an incumbent was under 40 percent, he was a dead man.” Murphy is right. Given how things are shaking up in Indiana, congressional incumbents elsewhere who haven’t been paid attention to voters — especially Democrats who supported Obama’s healthcare reform efforts — should probably pack up their offices right now.
Despite its reputation for solidly backing Republicans, Indiana has often been a reflection of where the nation is heading politically and otherwise. The state reflected the dominance of nativism during the 1920s, when Republicans backed by the Ku Klux Klan won control of state government. Electoral victories by Democrats during the 1930s, Republicans during the 1940s and 1950s, and Democrats (including Evan Bayh’s father, Birch) in the 1960s would reflect the nation’s embrace of New Deal liberalism, Eisenhower-style moderation, and the Great Society welfare state. Evan Bayh’s first major victory — as Indiana’s governor in 1988 — after two decades of conservative Republican dominance would foreshadow fellow centrist Democrat Bill Clinton’s presidential victory four years later.
If the last four years are to be a guide, Democrats should be even more alarmed than they are. Back in 2006, the victories of Brad Ellsworth and Joe Donnelly over Republican incumbents John Hostettler and Chris Chocola helped the Democrats recapture control of Congress for the first time in 12 years. Another Democrat, Baron Hill — who had lost the seat once held by Lee Hamilton during the Republican sweep of 2004 — won the seat back from transportation entrepreneur Mike Sodrel.
Two years later, Hillary Clinton learned the hard way that she wasn’t going to become the Democrats’ presidential nominee when her Nixonian attempts to appeal to the state’s farmers and blue-collar workers fell short amid a strong challenge by Barack Obama. That November, John McCain found himself unable to pick up the state’s 11 Electoral College votes, which usually land easily in Republican hands. Obama managed to pick up those votes for the first time for his party since Lyndon Baines Johnson’s defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Democrat strategists, both in Indiana and inside the Beltway, are probably hoping that the Republican candidates competing to be nominated to run against Bayh’s replacement — including former congressman Hostettler and Bayh’s predecessor, Dan Coats — eventually stumble. But the state Democratic operation — much of which Bayh built during his ascent to political stardom — is still beset by a string of losses (including two consecutive gubernatorial defeats). Nor are the possible candidates — including Ellsworth (who’s little-known outside of Southern Indiana) and former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson (a Bayh protégé) — particularly inspiring to the party’s centrist and progressive wings. Peterson, in particular, is still living down his own defeat by former Army colonel Greg Ballard, who had a mere $500,000 in his war chest and little support from the Circle City’s Republican establishment.
But Republicans shouldn’t get too cocky. Coats, in particular, faces the same charges of overly cozy ties to the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors that may benefit from the Obama healthcare reform plan that bedeviled Bayh during his short-lived re-election effort. Republicans elsewhere with similar iron-triangle relationships are also likely to be clobbered by grassroots Republicans and independents tired of such deal-making. Buyer’s decision to ditch his re-election efforts and Burton’s struggles to keep office are also signs that the nation is in full anti-incumbency mode.
As Indiana goes, so goes the nation. Incumbents and Democrats may end up crying in pork tenderloin sandwiches before the year is over.