Evan Bayh is returning to politics. The former Democratic governor of Indiana and U.S. senator has decided to enter the race for his old Senate seat, which is currently occupied by a retiring Republican. This is exciting news for people who want Democrats to retake the Senate, and bad news for people who want Democrats to retake the Senate not just for the sake of retaking the Senate, but so that those Democrats can actually accomplish things.
To amplify what Erik said earlier, I can understand this response at a visceral level. Bayh’s schitck is very, very annoying, and it would be nice if a Sherrod Brown clone were available and capable of winning Indiana.
But the claim that Bayh running is bad news for those hoping for Democrats to accomplish things does not actually make any sense. To state the obvious, it is overwhelmingly likely that Republicans will control the House until at least 2020, and if somehow Trump is enough of an anchor on the ticket for the Democrats to retain the House, they are likely to be relying on a razor-thin majority with the marginal votes being House members who like Bayh look like Nancy Pelosi. So what Bayh will stop Democrats from accomplishing legislatively is “nothing.” On the other hand, the Senate will have at least one Supreme Court nomination and possibly several to consider. And in his previous term Bayh was “nay” on Roberts and Alito and “yea” on Sotomayor and Kagan, which in terms of whether we should be happy that he’s running is in it itself dispositive. It should also worth noting that the biggest thing Democrats have accomplished since the Johnson administration, the Affordable Care Act, would not have passed without his vote, and he didn’t inflict the kind of damage on the statute that Lieberman or Nelson did. He is, I agree, very irritating and prone to reciting 90s-era Pain Caucus bullshit, but he also talks a worse game than he votes, and unless you think individual senators have a transformative effect on political discourse that presidents don’t have, that’s a tradeoff you can live with.
With judicial and executive appointments being most of the game for the first two years of the next administration, the importance of getting to 50 (and preferably 51 or 52) can hardly be overstated. Looking at the Senate races as they stood in June makes the importance of Bayh running clear. I think Democrats can be very confident about flipping Illinois and Wisconsin. But getting the at least two and preferably 4 to 5 more isn’t going to be easy. There are certainly multiple opportunities — Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, maybe Arizona — but it’s not going to be easy even if all of the incumbents hold serve. Florida is gone. So flipping Indiana from a no-hope state to a likely Democratic win is huge. If you’re agonizing over whether having someone talk too much about deficits on Meet the Press is worth getting the first Democratic median Supreme Court justice in a generation, I would suggest rearranging your priorities.
I’ll also note that you often hear criticism about Democratic candidate recruitment efforts, and while I think people may underestimate how hard it is to find good candidates willing to fun in unfavorable contexts, there’s probably some truth to it. But many of the same people will respond to a successful recruitment effort like this by noting that the candidate recruited to run in a deep-red state isn’t Elizabeth Warren. Well, duh — candidates who have a proven track record of winning in such jurisdictions rarely are. But in the modern partisan configuration intracaucus differences just aren’t very large. If you can show me a more liberal candidate than Bayh in Indiana with a similar chance of winning, I’ll complain about Bayh running. In the actual world we inhabit, getting him to run is a coup. Just make sure to tune out his speeches.