Democrats' Indiana problem
Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh's surprise retirement earlier this week appears set to create a domino effect in the state's Democratic politics that is exposing age-old tensions between House and Senate party officials.
Rep. Brad Ellsworth looks like the frontrunner to step into the void created by Bayh on the ballot and, according to the Howey Political Report, an Indiana-based newsletter, Ellsworth could announce his candidacy as soon as today. (The Fix hears an announcement today is unlikely but that Ellsworth does look like the pick.)
Ellsworth's departure from the 8th district would create a top-tier pickup opportunity for House Republicans and further complicate Democrats' majority math in the chamber. And that prospects has some in the House Democratic world fighting mad.
"Democrats are going to lose Bayh's Senate seat and will probably lose the seat of the House member that runs for it," said a senior House Democratic aide granted anonymity to speak candidly. "The focus on what's best for the Senate is making Members ask whether the White House cares about a Democratic majority in the House."
Eric Schultz, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, chose to direct his fire toward Republicans when asked about the tensions the Ellsworth pick might cause. "We will have a strong Democratic candidate who will face a weakened Republican field, which includes federal lobbyist, Virginian, and North Carolina-lover Dan Coats," he said.
From Senate Democrats' perspective, Ellsworth makes perfect sense. Handsome, charismatic and with a largely conservative voting record -- Ellsworth did vote for the President's health care bill but against the cap and trade legislation -- he is the closest thing that Indiana Democrats have to a younger version of Bayh.
(It doesn't hurt Ellsworth's chances that White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is a major fan of his; Emanuel recruited Ellsworth, then the sheriff of Vanderburgh County, to run for Congress in 2006.)
One man's treasure is, of course, another man's trash. And, losing Ellsworth in the 8th district would make it extremely difficult for House Democrats to keep a seat that Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) carried by four points in 2008 but George W. Bush won by 24 points four years earlier.
The initial thinking was that picking Ellsworth was a win-win for Senate and House Democrats as Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel, long seen as a rising star, would hop into the 8th district race if the seat became vacant.
But that plan hit the skids on Tuesday when Weinzapfel told his local newspaper that he was not interested in another House bid. (He ran unsuccessfully for the 8th district in 1996.) "In 1996, I came up a few votes short," Weinzapfel told the Evansville Courier-Press. "And that's not something I've thought about tackling again."
Of course, it's possible Weinzapfel reconsiders -- although that seems unlikely. The more likely scenario is that state Rep. Trent Van Haaften -- an Ellsworth ally unknown to national Democrats -- steps into the void.
It's not clear yet whether Van Haaften, who served as Posey County Prosecutor for eight years before being elected to the state House in 2004, will develop into a quality candidate but he is not the known entity that either Ellsworth or Weinzapfel represent.
The fight between Senate and House strategists -- illustrated by the "battle for Brad" -- is nothing new in politics. But, it is exacerbated in this year where the entire Democratic party is under siege and there are genuine concerns in both chambers about losing their majorities.
For Senate Democrats, landing Ellsworth is a coup -- one of the only candidates who could hope to win Bayh's seat in what seems likely to be a very challenging atmosphere.
For House Democrats, it's the worst of both worlds. Ellsworth leaves the House to pursue a quixotic Senate bid while leaving putting them badly on the defensive in his seat in a year where every district is going to matter.
Which side is right? We won't know until November 2. But what's clear is that the Bayh retirement has exposed some long simmering tensions that don't seem likely to go away any time soon.
February 18, 2010; 11:10 AM ET
Categories: House , Senate
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