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An uncertain future for the bipartisan Bayh

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 14, 2009

Sen. Evan Bayh's vote last week in favor of an amendment to the health-care bill that would have strengthened restrictions on how federal funds could be spent for abortions is the latest sign that the onetime national rising star has reached a crossroads in a political career that many expected to end in the White House.

Bayh (D-Ind.) was one of seven Democrats to cross party lines on the abortion-funding measure, a vote that many liberal interest groups cast as an open attempt to erode the legal rights of women. It's one in a series of Bayh votes that have drawn the ire of the party establishment -- he was one of three Democrats to vote against the omnibus spending bill Sunday and has been an outspoken critic of President Obama's "cap and trade" climate bill -- and it cemented his status as an apostate in the eyes of the Democratic base.

A check of aisle-crossing votes in The Washington Post's congressional voting database shows that Bayh is the most conservative Democratic senator in the 111th Congress, voting with the Democratic majority 72 percent of the time. (By comparison, Bayh voted with his party nearly 84 percent of the time in the 110th Congress, when he was being considered as a vice presidential nominee, and nearly 91 percent of the time in the 109th Congress, when he was considering a presidential run.)

While Bayh appears to be embracing a checks-and-balances role in the majority party -- he helped form a group of moderate-to-conservative senators earlier this year -- it is a role that virtually ensures he will not be a serious candidate for national office. Moderates don't tend to win presidential nominations -- see Joe Lieberman or Rudy Giuliani -- and, given that Bayh has been seriously considered as a running mate and then passed over twice in the past eight years, it's hard to see the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee putting him on his or her shortlist.

The seeming end of Bayh's national ambitions marks a fascinating turn of events for a man born into electoral politics. The only son of Marvella Bayh and Sen. Birch Bayh, a presidential candidate himself in 1976, Evan Bayh was governor of the Hoosier State by age 32 and effortlessly moved into the Senate in 1998. That fast rise -- Bayh is 53 years old -- is a blessing and a curse. He has achieved more than most politicians do in a lifetime, but he also has already risen and fallen as a potential national candidate well before most politicians ever begin to be talked about for those highest office.

All of which means that Bayh doesn't have an obvious next step in politics. It's why he seriously considered retiring in 2010 -- senior Democratic officials acknowledge they were genuinely concerned he might step aside -- before ultimately deciding to seek a third term next fall.

Bayh will, as he has throughout his political life, coast to victory next November thanks to his popularity, the weakness of his Republican opponents and his $13 million campaign war chest. But his political future is cloudier than ever before.

Change at the mansion

The Republican sweep of off-year gubernatorial elections this fall in New Jersey and Virginia should give the GOP some momentum heading into a 2010 election that features a whopping 37 -- 19 Democratic, 18 Republican -- seats up for grabs.

But Democrats recently got some good news with the retirement of Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell (R) and the decision by Houston Mayor Bill White (D) to leave the U.S. Senate race to pursue a gubernatorial bid.

A look at the gubernatorial playing field shows that both sides have a few shoo-ins likely to balance each other out, leaving the battle for electoral success to be fought in familiar places such as Pennsylvania, Colorado, Arizona, Ohio, Nevada and Florida.

Here's a look at the five contests most likely to result in a party switch next November:

5. Oklahoma (Democratic): Republicans have largely united behind Rep. Mary Fallin, who, because of the Sooner State's strong GOP nature, is the favorite to succeed term-limited Gov. Brad Henry (D). Interestingly, Democrats have two statewide elected officials running -- Attorney General Drew Edmondson and Lt. Gov. Jari Askins -- but it's hard to see either overcoming the state's demographics.

4. Rhode Island (Republican): Democrats are headed to a spirited primary between state Treasurer Frank Caprio and state Attorney General Patrick Lynch. Republicans seem excited about businessman Rory Smith, but it's extremely hard for a Republican to get elected to anything in Rhode Island. The real X factor is former Republican senator Lincoln Chafee, who is running as an independent. Chafee is inconsistent and unpredictable as a candidate, and rumors that he might drop out of the race led him to release an internal poll showing him running strong.

3. Hawaii (R): Gov. Linda Lingle's eight-year tenure atop the Aloha State's political pecking order is a testament to her personal appeal. But Hawaii is a Democratic bastion, and with Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann in the race, the party has a strong and qualified field.

2. Tennessee (D): The only drama in the governor's race is whether Rep. Zach Wamp can upset Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam in the GOP primary. Either way, Republicans are going to take back this seat after eight years of Gov. Phil Bredesen (D).

1. Kansas (D): Democrats finally got a candidate to run against Sen. Sam Brownback (R), and it was promptly revealed that a company he led had settled a class-action suit for nearly $13 million. Not good.

Players

Sean Harrison, the man who guided Barbara Comstock (R) to an upset victory over Virginia Del. Margi Vanderhye (D) this fall, has signed on as campaign manager for Republican state Sen. Robert Hurt's challenge to freshman Rep. Tom Perriello (D). Perriello, who ousted Rep. Virgil Goode (R) by 727 votes in 2008, is among the country's most vulnerable incumbents. If Hurt defeats Perriello, Harrison will be a hot commodity for Republicans looking to run statewide in 2013.

Countdown

50 days: The first primaries of 2010 will be on Feb. 2 in Illinois. Gov. Pat Quinn (D) is being challenged by state Comptroller Dan Hynes, and state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) is trying to hold off two challengers in the open U.S. Senate race.

78 days: The premier primary fight of 2010, a Republican gubernatorial showdown in Texas between incumbent Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, will take place on March 2.

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