Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat, said Monday that he will not seek re-election this year, shocking his party, giving Republicans a good chance to win the seat and underscoring just how poisonous the partisan atmosphere in Washington has become.
For a senator who flirted with a run for the White House just a few years ago, whose family is a political dynasty in Indiana, and who as recently as this month gave every impression he was running, the decision was a stunning turnaround.
“I love working for the people of Indiana, I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives, but I do not love Congress,” Mr. Bayh said in announcing his plans in Indianapolis.
The 54-year-old two-term incumbent becomes the fifth Democratic senator to give up his seat this year, but unlike the other two, Mr. Bayh was ahead in the polls and in decent shape to win re-election. His move fuels Republicans’ hopes of retaking the Senate, and underscores the disconnect that has been growing for some time between voters and their elected officials.
Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist, said three years ago that Mr. Bayh was as secure as any other lawmaker, but his votes in favor of President Obama’s agenda have soured voters. Mr. McKenna said he expects that dynamic to be repeated across the country this year.
“If a guy like Evan Bayh is not safe because of voter wrath, nobody’s safe. And that’s a good thing, that’s not a bad thing. That’s what the republic’s supposed to be about,” said Mr. McKenna, who was in Indiana this week surveying public opinion.
“He’s been a good senator for the last two terms, and he’s represented the state of Indiana well. But something happened in the last three years and it wasn’t good, and he lost his bearings. If a guy like Evan Bayh can lose his bearings, anybody can lose his bearings.”
Mr. Bayh said he was confident that he would have won re-election, and had amassed nearly $13 million for his campaign.
But as a former governor, he said, he views himself as more of an “executive” than a legislator forced to navigate the various factions on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Bayh also said he was miffed at a couple of recent failures of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill: the defection by seven formerly supportive Republicans that killed a commission to deal with the budget deficit and last week’s collapse of a bipartisan deal on a jobs bill, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, scuttled.
Bud Jackson, a Democratic strategist, said Mr. Bayh was rattled by the poor electoral environment and said it should spur the majority party to start playing hardball politics to pursue its agenda.
“Any election that were held today in any competitive seat is a scary proposition for Democrats, given the mood of the electorate and what hasn’t yet been accomplished,” Mr. Jackson said. “The good news is the election isn’t today, but if this administration - and especially the Senate Democratic leadership - can’t get their act together to start pushing through some key legislation, then Democrats are going to be in big trouble in November.”
Mr. Bayh’s abrupt decision leaves Indiana Democrats in a precarious position. Petitions are due Tuesday to qualify for the state’s May 4 primary.
One Democrat, Tamyra R. d’Ippolito, a cafe owner in Bloomington who said she’s running as “a citizen, not as a politician,” is trying to collect the signatures to get her name on the primary ballot.
If no candidate qualifies, the state Democratic Party would choose a nominee. Several conservative-leaning Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation and former state officeholders could be attractive candidates. Among the leading names mentioned: Reps. Brad Ellsworth and Baron P. Hill, both considered centrists.
On the Republican side, former Sen. Dan Coats and former Rep. John Hostettler are among those who were weighing the race before Mr. Bayh announced plans to retire.
With Mr. Bayh off the ballot, veteran political handicapper Charlie Cook declared that the seat now leans Republican. Another, Stuart Rothenberg, said he now considers the race a tossup.
Mr. Bayh hinted that he sees a future running a company, a charity or a university. But he also will be considered a candidate for Indiana governor in 2012, or even to make a run for the White House.
In a meeting between Senate Democrats and Mr. Obama earlier this month, Mr. Bayh revealed his frustration when he challenged the president to prove to voters that Democrats can get past politics and prove they can solve problems such as the budget deficit.
“Speaking to independents, conservative Democrats, moderate Republicans - people who know we have to do this - why should the Democratic Party be trusted? And are we willing to make some of the tough decisions to actually head this country in a better direction?” he said.
Mr. Obama replied with a stinging attack on Republicans’ failures to balance the budget under President George W. Bush and by blaming the GOP for the financial market collapse that the president said has tied his hands.
In the bruising 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Mr. Bayh endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton over Mr. Obama, but he said in his speech Monday that his retirement is not a reflection on the president.
“I look forward to working with him during the next 11 months to get our deficit under control, get the economy moving again, regulate Wall Street to avoid future financial crises and reform education,” he said.
Mr. Obama released a statement praising Mr. Bayh for “reaching across the aisle” on big issues. He remained silent on the senator’s criticisms of the level of partisanship in Washington.