Bayh's departure worries Indiana Democrats

Sen. Evan Bayh's abrupt departure brings fresh worries for Indiana Democrats, a species with a perilous hold on office in the best of times. Indiana State Rep. Nancy Dembowski (D) talks about the impact Bayh's decision will have on the party.
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2010

KNOX, IND. -- State Rep. Nancy Dembowski (D) thought her colleagues were kidding a week ago when they told her that U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) had decided not to seek a third term. She understood his complaint about partisan paralysis in Congress, but she wondered how he could simply quit in the middle of the fight.

Bayh's abrupt departure brought fresh worries for Indiana Democrats, a species with a perilous hold on office in the best of times. As Dembowski filed for reelection at the courthouse here, an American flag before her and supporters arrayed behind, she predicted that his absence will hurt the party in November.

"It will impact us," Dembowski said. "He was the leader."

One week after Bayh's startling decision, Democratic leaders are racing to select a prospective successor, with Rep. Brad Ellsworth, a former sheriff from southern Indiana, emerging as a leading candidate against a Republican field that includes former senator Dan Coats. The high-profile announcement has also prompted a discussion about the problems facing voters in the state -- and the maddening effects of the divisive political climate in Washington.

Opinion is divided over the merits of Bayh's decision, but few seem to disagree with his assessment that Congress has sunk into party-first dysfunction. Pausing between frames at Bowlaway Lanes, a bowler named Alice said: "They're too darned stubborn. Forget party, just do your job."

Bayh's timing did not help Democrats, party officials say. He announced his decision just four days before last Friday's filing deadline.

"There's a lot of Democrats disappointed that he waited till the last minute to say he wasn't going to run for office," said Kenneth Walker, Starke County's Democratic chairman. "It caught me by surprise like everybody else. He'd have won if he'd run."

The Bayh name has been golden in Indiana for two generations. Evan Bayh, a two-term governor and two-term senator, has never lost a statewide race. He won the seat of his more progressive father, Birch Bayh, who, now in his 80s, remains widely respected.

Both men campaigned for Barack Obama, with Birch Bayh speaking at Knox's community center before the 2008 general election. Obama won Indiana by less than one percentage point .

In the 16 months since the election, the economy has been the central cause of a souring mood. Rural Starke County, 80 miles southeast of Chicago, is one of the poorest in Indiana. The unemployment rate was 13 percent in December, significantly higher than the state average. Layoffs have slowed or stopped, officials say, but hiring has not yet begun.

"That's what everybody's talking about, getting jobs," said Kenneth Walker, a retired autoworker and union official who heads the local Democratic Party. "Everybody's wondering how we're ever going to get out of this -- two wars going, all the stimulus spending."

The perils of incumbency

The frustration with politicians is so strong that Dembowski, elected since the 1980s as mayor of Knox, county commissioner and state senator, does not volunteer those credentials when talking with voters.

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