Moderate Dems a Vanishing Breed

Salena Zito
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Posted: Feb 16, 2010 12:01 AM
Moderate Dems a Vanishing Breed

Evan Bayh's decision not to seek re-election to a seat Democrats considered somewhat "safe" in the Senate is a clear indication that something is wrong with the Democratic Party, some experts said Monday.

Bayh, 54, a former Indiana governor in his second six-year term as a senator, said he decided not to run because he is disillusioned by partisanship in Congress, which "is not operating as it should." He cited narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving.

His decision means Democrats must scramble to find a candidate who can help them retain control of the Senate. Bayh is the third Democratic senator to announce he will not seek re-election this year, following Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.

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“This is a warning sign on so many levels, when people like Evan Bayh walk way rather than serve their country,” said Steve McMahon, a former senior Senate staffer for the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

“The moderate Democrat is a vanishing breed,” said McMahon, a Democratic strategist on Capitol Hill. “It is the moderates that make the difference between being in the majority and being in the minority, a problem for the Democrats.”

Former Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum said Bayh did what he himself should have done when faced with a similar situation in the 2006 mid-term election. Santorum lost by 18 points to Democrat Bob Casey Jr. in an election year that cost Republicans the majority in the House and Senate.

Santorum commended Bayh for having a clearer head than he did: “He looked at the conditions practically and knew that running would prove to be toxic.”

Bayh shares many of the election problems Santorum had in 2006. He faces the same scrutiny on residency -- both men maintained small houses in their home states but lived most of the time in Washington. Santorum's polling numbers might have been affected by President George W. Bush's decreased popularity; Bayh faces the same problem, since recent polls show President Obama's approval ratings are dropping, Santorum said.

“I think he made the right decision,” Santorum said. “I saw him a couple of weeks ago and he was not a happy camper. We talked about it and he said he didn’t like it any more.”

Purdue University political scientist Bert Rockman said Santorum faced more hostile conditions than Bayh does but acknowledged the situation could worsen for him.

“I think the seat is now likely to be a pick-up for the Republicans, with Dan Coats as their candidate," Rockman said. Coats is a former Republican senator from Indiana who recently announced he would run against Bayh.

Bayh was ahead in polls and well funded, Rockman said, although he "faced a real contest.”

Bayh didn't fit in well in a Senate that favors "the older members and the status quo,” said University of Virginia political analyst Isaac Woods. He said Bayh's retirement indicates he "figured out the secret of the Senate: change is slow to come.”

Democratic consultant Larry Ceisler of Philadelphia, a longtime friend of Bayh's, said he wasn’t surprised by the decision. He said Bayh months ago canceled fundraising events in Philadelphia.

“He bemoaned the fact that there was no place for pragmatic moderates to go," Ceisler said. "In the end, he got fed up with it all.”