Following the recent shake-up of the state’s senatorial and gubernatorial races, Indiana has earned significant national attention. On the Democratic side, the Senate race was upended when former congressman Baron Hill withdrew from the race, clearing the way for former Democratic senator Evan Bayh to run. On the Republican side, Governor Mike Pence was selected as Donald Trump’s running mate (Trump announced his choice on Twitter, proving that his advisors had been right to worry that he would do exactly that), leaving his seat open just a few months before he faced a potentially competitive reelection bid.
Both of these sudden vacancies have national ramifications, and the way they are filled will have serious repercussions for the electoral map. Bayh’s announcement is welcome news to Democrats, who have met with a series of setbacks in Florida, where their preferred candidate Patrick Murphy has had a series of high-profile negative stories reported about him in the past few weeks. At a minimum, Bayh’s candidacy means that Republicans are likely to invest at least a little bit of money in a Senate race that they had been treating as if it were already in the bag. Trump’s selection of Pence suggests that he views a strong performance in the Rust Belt and the Midwest as keys to victory in November.
These twin vacancies include both good and bad news for both parties. For the Democrats, Bayh’s late decision to run complicates a Senate race previously thought to be a shoo-in for Republicans because of Hill’s failure to gain traction in the contest, combined with the fact that Bayh has about $10 million and the benefit of being the son of legendary Hoosier senator Birch Bayh. For the Republicans, Pence’s gubernatorial vacancy means that Republicans across the state are vying to replace him as a candidate for governor; the chaos this induces in the short term ultimately does make an all-but-certain Republican victory more likely, whoever the candidate may be, because Pence had a rocky start to his reelection bid, whereas a newcomer to the race starts off free from Pence’s baggage.
Bayh is a centrist Democrat who has not been popular in his party since his 2010 retirement. Bayh announced that he would not run for reelection in 2010 because he had fallen out of “love” with the institution. His career as a private citizen took him down an odd road for a Democrat, including a stint at Fox News that ended a few days ago. Democrats scrambled to appoint a candidate in 2010 to fill the vacancy on the ballot and went on to lose the election. This time around, Bayh is doing exactly the same thing by replacing the candidate most Hoosiers were expecting to see on the ballot in November.
Six years later, Bayh’s relatively centrist record is probably not going to excite Hoosier Democrats. Considering that Bernie Sanders’s win in Indiana helped keep him in the race for the Democratic nomination, it appears that Indiana Democrats are attracted to more left-wing policies, something that Bayh does not offer. His disengagement from the Democratic Party has not improved since 2010 and he has already taken a lot of flak from the left for his decision to parachute into the race.
Furthermore, Bayh’s rustiness as a candidate makes his path to victory look uncertain. He looked out of practice when he tried to prove his Hoosier credentials: “I am a proud Hoosier. Can I sing you the Indiana University fight song? Would that help? I’m not very good at that, but I’d be happy to if that would help establish my bona fides.”
Most analysts have upgraded the odds of Democrats winning the seat given Bayh’s previous electoral success, although Republicans are definitely still favored in the fall. Unfortunately for Republicans, it is almost inevitable that they will have to spend some previously unallocated money here that could have been spent on other races around the country.
On the Republican side, the candidate who fills Pence’s vacancy will be appointed by a committee consisting of members from each of the state’s nine congressional districts, along with members selected at the statewide level. Many Indiana Democrats are actually disappointed that Trump selected Pence, because they viewed the governor as more beatable than the standard Republican opponent, and Republicans are now all but certain they will hold the seat. The three Republicans now vying for selection are lieutenant governor Eric Holcomb, congressman Todd Rokita, and congresswoman Susan Brooks. The biggest surprise was that former governor Mitch Daniels announced that he will not be seeking to return to his old office. This gives Holcomb a slight edge, because he is not only the sitting lieutenant governor, but also a former top aide to Daniels, who remains immensely popular.
All three candidates for Governor have been making the most of the RNC, because all of the members of the committee that will select the replacement for Pence are at the convention. The candidates are all in Cleveland, and they have been working their delegation to attempt to gain the upper hand before the final decision is made in the days to come. Candidates only had around an hour to withdraw from their races and file paperwork to run for governor, so few had the opportunity to file. All of these candidates had to withdraw from their current races, but it is still possible for them to attempt to be reappointed to those seats if they are not selected to fill the gubernatorial vacancy. Any seat that is then vacated will in turn have its own scramble to fill its opening, which means that we haven’t heard the last of Indiana vacancies this cycle.
Pence’s selection as Trump’s running mate is somewhat confounding given his deep ideological disagreements with Trump on issues ranging from free trade to the Iraq War. It remains to be seen whether he will stay ideologically consistent, or whether he will waffle on his beliefs in the way that Newt Gingrich did when he was vying to be selected as vice presidential candidate. Pence and Gingrich were two of the finalists for the job, and the selection of Pence was meant to assure some Republicans that Trump can actually govern with his head and not with his gut. Former vice president and Indiana senator Dan Quayle recently told reporters that it shows how Trump will “probably govern.”
Trump’s candidacy has received a lot of attention from the media, but that doesn’t mean that down-ballot races are any less interesting; in fact, they are often just as intriguing, if you know where to look.
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