INDIANAPOLIS — Nearly every Senate Democratic candidate running this year has built a campaign on criticizing Donald Trump and the down-ballot Republican candidates who refuse to oppose him.
Evan Bayh has a different plan.
On Sunday, the 60-year-old former senator complained about the vitriolic tone of American politics from the front seat of a sport utility vehicle, on his way to visit a predominantly black church on the city’s east side.
And yet, when asked if he even partially blamed Donald Trump, the Democratic Senate candidate declined to do so despite the Republican presidential nominee’s penchant for provocative rhetoric.
“I’m not gonna single anyone out,” Bayh said. “I think there’s a lot of that going around in the congressional and gubernatorial races. You know, just all around.”
Bayh stunned Democrats and Republicans alike last month when he decided to run for Senate in a state where he once served two terms as governor and senator, a re-entry into public life that turned a sleepy third-tier race into a marquee battleground against Republican nominee Rep. Todd Young.
But a month into his abbreviated campaign, he and his team say they know Bayh must run a very different race than the Democratic candidates he hopes to join in the Senate. Bayh isn’t trying to represent a blue-leaning state like New Hampshire or Pennsylvania, where Democratic Senate campaigns believe winning over Hillary Clinton’s supporters will be enough for victory.
Instead, to come out on top, Bayh needs to persuade Trump supporters to split their ticket on Election Day.
“I’m a Democrat in Indiana,” said Paul Tencher, Bayh’s campaign manager. “The only way I win is with crossover voters.”
That means breaking with Clinton on key issues (he opposes the nuclear-arms deal with Iran), capitalizing on the goodwill he and his father (former United States Senator Birch Bayh) amassed during decades in public office, and emphasizing his opposition to many free-trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement.
It also means laying off criticism of the Democratic Party’s favorite punching bag, Trump.
“[Trump’s] not someone we worry about or talk about,” said Trencher, who added that the campaign’s goal was to give GOP-leaning voters a “permission slip” to vote for Bayh.
Republicans say they have a campaign ready to knock down Bayh’s strategy — especially when it comes to his decades-long tenure in the public eye. Already, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign has run a TV ad in Indiana highlighting the former senator’s support for Obamacare, arguing that he is just another down-the-line liberal. The political committee’s spending comes on top of a $1 million buy last month from the Koch-backed Freedom Partners Action Fund.
Young and his campaign are arguing, meanwhile, Bayh has turned his back on the Hoosier State after leaving office, spending more time at a home in the nation’s capital than Indiana.
“Evan Bayh clearly does not have Hoosier values,” Young said. “He’s a Washingtonian who represents the worst of Washington values. We’ll continue to educate people about the real Evan Bayh, while contrasting his thin record of accomplishment informed by his Washington values … with my substantial record of accomplishment during a much shorter time.”
In an interview, Bayh responded to the criticism by saying he was a fifth-generation resident Indiana resident before chiding Young for the attack.
“I don’t agree with some of the things he’s saying about me,” Bayh said. “He’s starting this campaign on a very negative basis, but hopefully he’ll come around and realize that the path to high public office does not lie down taking a low road.”
Neither Republicans nor Democrats dispute the current state of the race: Bayh, at least for now, has a large lead thanks for his near-universal name recognition. An internal poll from Indiana Democratic gubernatorial nominee John Gregg’s campaign, released Tuesday, found the onetime governor leading 58 percent to 32 percent.
Both sides also agree that the lead will shrink as Young becomes better known, especially in the Indianapolis media market. (Young represents a mostly southern Indiana congressional district concentrated near Louisville.)
The question is how much — and how soon — Bayh’s support drops. Republicans have a dilemma of time and resources: Because of Bayh’s late entry into the race, Young and his allies will have had only four months to make their case to voters by Election Day.
And they’ll be doing so against the best-funded Democratic candidate on the map, thanks the nearly $10 million the former lawmaker carried over from his old campaign account.
Democrats plainly hope that Bayh’s early lead and financial stockpile convince Young allies, like the Chamber of Commerce, that they’re better off spending heavily in other Senate battlegrounds. Such a decision, they believe, could effectively end any chance the Republican nominee has of winning.
“Finding a way to cut off an opponent’s resources is an essential part of any campaign,” said Ben Ray, Bayh’s communications director. “Because if you don’t make them leave, they won’t quit. We gotta make these guys quit.”
Young scoffed at the notion his campaign won’t have the time or resources to fight back against Bayh.
“I have a high level of confidence that we can very directly and accurately convey to Hoosiers how Evan Bayh has changed, and how after all of these years, he’s still running on his dad’s name,” Young said. “Whereas I am running on my dad’s values, and they are Hoosier values.”
Democrats like Ray caution that they aren’t planning on winning easily and dispute the notion that shortened timetable works in their favor. Ray, who had been working as a spokesman at the Democratic outside group American Bridge, and Tencher only arrived in Indianapolis full-time on Monday of last week. (“We’re still trying to put the airplane together as we fly it,” Ray quipped.)
A network of allies
Still, he can rely on an old network of allies to help whip his campaign into shape. On Sunday morning, he visited a trio of churches spread across the city here and its adjacent suburbs. At his last stop, alongside his wife and one of his sons, Bayh stood, clapped, and (slightly) swayed during a boisterous sermon before being introduced before a thousand or so members of the congregation.
The church leader made clear that he does not tell people who to vote for, but Bayh’s presence was well-received.
“We gotta vote. It’s how we speak. That’s how we communicate,” the church leader said before thanking the Bayhs for attending once again.
Bayh, as he had done on a previous stop, left the church before the service ended and was in his car before he could glad-hand its congregants. (He was later seen at the Indianapolis airport catching an afternoon flight to Washington.)
But as he reached the church foyer, he met Chris Hull. They shook hands like old friends.
“I always say life is a team sport, and I’m glad you’re on my team,” Bayh told Hull, a minster at this Baptist church.
The 61-year-old Hull said later that he and his wife had known Bayh for years — but even before that, Hull’s mother had been an avid supporter of Evan’s father.
Even six years out of office, the minister said, Evan Bayh had strong connections in the state.
“He burned no bridges when he was here,” Hull said.