Could Evan Bayh Be the GOP’s Worst Nightmare in 2008?

Posted March 2, 2005 at 4:24pm

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) isn’t about to announce his candidacy for president just yet. But one look at his team tells me that he’s running. [IMGCAP(1)]

Steve Bouchard, who worked in New Hampshire in 2004 and ran Ohio for the influential 527 group America Coming Together, now runs Bayh’s renamed All America PAC, formerly Americans for Responsible Leadership.

Veteran spokesman Dan Pfeiffer, who served as communications director at the Democratic Governors Association before moving to South Dakota to work for Sen. Tim Johnson and then-Sen. Tom Daschle, is Bayh’s new communications director.

And pollster Paul Maslin has joined Bayh’s team, replacing Mark Penn, who happens to be Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) pollster. The new recruits join Anita Dunn, who handled Bayh’s advertising in his easy 2004 re-election campaign.

If Bayh can overcome all the obvious hurdles to winning the presidential nomination, he’d pose a huge problem for the Republicans.

Indiana, a red state, is quintessentially Middle America. And Bayh is part of what Democratic pollster Fred Yang — who has worked extensively in the state, though never for the junior Senator — calls “the Hoosier Holy Trinity: Basketball, God and Evan Bayh.”

While Bayh has been criticized for being overly cautious as a politician, he hasn’t suffered back home. In Indiana, he is a rock star.

In 1988, as the 32-year-old son of former Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh, he was elected governor with 53 percent. He won a second term with 62 percent. In 1998, he won an open Senate seat with more than 63 percent, and last year he was re-elected with 62 percent even as President Bush won 60 percent in Indiana.

“People in Indiana have a real affinity for him,” a perceptive Democrat said. “Democrats [in the state] respect and admire him because he brought the party back. Republicans and independents think he’s one of the few Democrats who get it.”

Bayh’s reputation as a fiscal conservative who opposed higher taxes is part of state lore, and he can point to enough moderate votes on foreign policy and so-called social issues to make it difficult for Republicans to brand him as a stereotypical liberal Democrat.

Bayh voted both to authorize the invasion of Iraq and for the $87 billion requested by Bush to pay for it. When he speaks about terrorism and national security, he sounds more like a Republican than a Democrat.

The Indiana Democrat, who has generally backed free trade, voted for a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning and for proposals to prevent “partial-birth” abortions. While abortion opponents won’t be satisfied with Bayh’s overall record, he won’t be easy to stereotype as an extreme cultural liberal.

But don’t confuse Evan Bayh with former Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.): Bayh is a real Democrat. He voted against confirming John Ashcroft as attorney general and Condoleezza Rice at State, against the Bush tax cuts, against drilling in the Arctic, and for requiring gun-show background checks. (In 2004, the National Rifle Association gave him a D-minus.)

But whatever you think of Bayh’s record, it is his style that pegs him as a moderate. Unlike some Democrats, the Senator doesn’t rant and rave like a knee-jerk liberal (or a knee-jerk conservative). He avoids partisan buzzwords, exaggerated rhetoric and wild gestures.

But if you think that that’s entirely a compliment, think again. Bayh affects an audience with his seriousness, not his energy. His keynote speech at the 1996 Democratic National Convention is remembered as a bust, and even supporters acknowledge that he doesn’t light up crowds. He can somehow be personable, wooden and awkward at the same time.

That weakness, however, may be offset by a political skill he possesses. “Evan Bayh may not be the best stump speaker, but he’s a master at creating visuals, and that allows him to deliver his message,” said one savvy Hoosier observer.

Bayh’s biggest challenge in 2008 isn’t winning the White House. It’s winning the Democratic nomination for president. Can the Indiana Senator rally the party’s grass roots? Will liberal groups accept him given his voting record?

Bayh’s obvious asset in a race for his party’s nomination is his “electability.” Sen. John Kerry’s (Mass.) alleged electability was a decisive factor in his Iowa caucuses win and ultimate nomination, but in his case it was a mirage. Bayh’s electability is far, far greater than Kerry’s ever will be. But that might not be enough given the Indiana Senator’s record on Iraq, abortion and trade. And Bayh’s record and reputation is far more moderate than Kerry’s was.

Any Democrat running for president will need to woo his party’s core constituencies. How Bayh does that — without undermining his appeal to swing voters in the general election — will be worth watching.

Bayh’s best chance may be to run the way then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton did in 1992: as a Democrat who is “good enough” on key liberal issues to get interest-group support, even if he isn’t the purest liberal in the field. Combining that with electability and political smarts should make Bayh a serious contender.

“The one thing that you can be sure of with Evan Bayh,” one fan said recently, is that “you can go to sleep at night and know that you aren’t going to read [in the morning newspaper] anything that is going to damage the campaign.”

That is an asset that some Democrats may find hard to resist.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.