Democrats look to Indiana in hopes of taking over U.S. Senate

Posted at 1:40 PM, Sep 03, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-03 13:40:35-04

INDIANAPOLIS -- Republican Senate candidates around the country, from Wisconsin to Florida, are bracing for Donald Trump to lose their states, and they're looking for ways to win in spite of him.

In Indiana, GOP Senate nominee Todd Young is facing a completely different, but arguably even more frustrating challenge.

His opponent, former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, shocked Young and pretty much everyone else when he got into the race less than two months ago at the urging of Senate Democratic leaders. Bayh announced he'd changed his mind after retiring from Congress in a well-publicized burst of frustration six years ago, and wanted his old job back.

Since then, Bayh has barely talked about Trump, who's expected to win Indiana. But then Bayh barely talks about Young either, or really much about politics at all.

Instead Bayh, a youthful 60, is trying to cruise to victory on the strength of his own popularity from his years as Indiana's governor in the 1990s, and his family's long history in the state, where his father, Birch Bayh, also was a senator.

Evan Bayh avoids much contact with the media and instead pops up around the state almost unannounced to regale appreciative voters with anecdotes. About the time as a kid when Harry Truman walked him to the bathroom. About the white socks his father wore with a suit. About his 20-year-old twin sons' enormous appetites. About how he went to the new Jason Bourne movie ("which I'm not sure I'd advise"), only to be given, to his dismay, a senior ticket.

He started the campaign with a massive lead in fundraising and polls, and his strategy is plainly to run out the clock on the election before either advantage disappears.

The strategy exasperates Republicans, who have reams of opposition research about Bayh, much of it focused on the fact that he spent the past six years of his life living in multimillion-dollar residences not in Indiana. But the GOP may not have enough time to turn voters' views before the Nov. 8 election.

"He's running a campaign based on his dad's name, which is pretty sad," said Young, 44, a hard-working third-term congressman and former Marine who's not well-known outside his southern Indiana district. "Evan Bayh represents the old way of politics, the old way of doing things, and this is a change election. And I represent change."

Young was the easy favorite to win the seat after beating a tea party opponent in the May primary, but that was before Bayh got into the race. Since then, Republicans argue that they've given Bayh a tougher contest than he bargained for after not being on the ballot in 12 years.

Bayh acknowledges the campaigning seems rougher than before, but insists he doesn't regret getting back in.

"It's a lot nastier than I remember," Bayh said recently outside an Indianapolis senior center where many residents had personal stories to share about him. One remembered Bayh being born; another said Bayh officiated at her daughter's wedding.

"I'm doing this because I want to make a difference to the people of my state," Bayh said. "If I've got to put up with some of the nasty politics, well, then so be it."

Putting Indiana in their likely win column was a major coup for Democrats in this year's costly fight for Senate control. Republicans command a slim 54-46 majority, and Democrats need to pick up four seats to take back power if they hang onto the White House. The electoral map greatly favors Democrats this year, and Republicans are on defense on unfavorable terrain in a half-dozen states, including Illinois and Wisconsin, where Democrats lead in the polls.

The Wisconsin race also features a former senator trying to make a comeback, although Democrat Russ Feingold lost to the man he is now trying to replace, GOP Sen. Ron Johnson.

Intense struggles are underway in Nevada, where Minority Leader Harry Reid's retirement gave Republicans their one pickup opportunity, and in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Florida, where incumbent GOP Sen. Marco Rubio is seen as having an edge over Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy.

Democratic hopes have faded in Ohio, where Sen. Rob Portman has run a strong campaign against former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland. But Democrats are holding out hope for North Carolina, Missouri and Arizona, where GOP Sen. John McCain is seeking a sixth term.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman starts his "Moving Ohio Forward" RV tour in Terrace Park. Photo by Phil Didion | WCPO contributor

Republicans acknowledge that in many of these states the outcome will depend on how Trump performs. If he manages to win or loses to Hillary Clinton only narrowly, Republicans could limit their losses or even potentially hang onto their majority.

But if Trump ends up losing big, the marginal states could all fall to Democrats.

In many states, Republicans are working diligently to find Clinton voters who will also vote for a Republican for Senate.

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In Indiana, by contrast, Young is trying to tie Bayh to Clinton, who is quite unpopular. Bayh says Clinton has "always been trustworthy in my dealings with her," and there's little evidence Young's strategy has worked so far in a state where Trump supporters who also plan to back Bayh are not hard to find.

"I'm voting for Trump. ... Usually I vote straight Republican," Sherrie Elliott, 56, an Indianapolis paralegal, said on a recent afternoon in Monument Circle downtown. But she's also considering casting her ballot for Bayh. "He always seemed nice and honest when he was our governor."