WASHINGTON – The stunning announcement by centrist Indiana Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh that he’s retiring from a Congress he no longer loves adds yet another name to a list of lawmakers fleeing a town they say has become acidly partisan. And it gives Republicans a chance to pick up a seat.
The decision by the Indiana Democrat, who was in strong position to win a third term in November in his GOP-leaning state, also compounds the problems facing Senate Democrats this fall as they cling to their majority in the chamber, where they now hold 59 of the 100 votes.
Bayh joins a growing roster of recent Democratic retirements that includes Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island and Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. Yet the congressional casualty list has a decidedly bipartisan flavor, with recent retirement announcements coming from Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and other GOP House members from Michigan, Indiana, Arkansas and Arizona.
“Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you’ve probably had some very nasty town hall meetings lately, and most normal human beings don’t enjoy being yelled at,” said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “Democrats stand to lose more than Republicans because they’re the in party, but Republicans are catching some of this too.”
Democrats have a 255-178 edge in the House, with two vacancies from Democrat-held seats. But there are 49 Democrats from districts Republican presidential candidate John McCain won in 2008, placing them among the most endangered House Democrats.
With the public upset over job losses, spiraling federal deficits and spending, huge bonuses awarded to executives of bailed-out financial institutions, and Washington’s yearlong preoccupation with health care, one need look no further than recent polls to gauge the poisonous political atmosphere facing members of Congress seeking re-election:
•In an Associated Press-GfK poll in mid-January, just 32 percent approved of how Congress was handling its job, including just 4 percent strongly approving, though Democrats got higher marks than Republicans. People were split about evenly over whether they wanted their own members of Congress to be re-elected, an unusually poor showing. And while nearly everyone named the economy as the most important issue, just one in five considered the economy in good shape.
•A CBS News/New York Times poll in early February found 81 percent saying it’s time to elect new people to Congress, with just 8 percent saying most members deserve re-election.
The departure of Bayh, 54, sent deeper shock waves than most. Telegenic and on the list of potential running mates for the past two Democratic national tickets, Bayh is known more for the moderate tone of his politics than for any particular legislative achievements, and his parting words had a notably plaintive tenor.
“To put it in words most Hoosiers can understand: 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,” Bayh said Monday in the statement he read in Indianapolis announcing his decision.
He also lambasted the acerbic divide between Democrats and Republicans in Washington, saying, “I am not motivated by strident partisanship or ideology.” He added that he wanted to work in the private sector, perhaps running a business, university or charity, for “solutions not slogans, progress not politics.”
Republicans saw a more partisan motivation in Bayh’s departure.
“The fact of the matter is Senator Evan Bayh and moderate Democrats across the country are running for the hills because they sold out their constituents and don’t want to face them at the ballot box,” Michael Steele, chairman of the national Republican Party, said in a written statement regarding the $787 billion stimulus bill enacted a year ago and other measures.
GOP pollster Neil Newhouse saw Bayh’s decision through the prism of the GOP’s startling capture of the Senate seat in deep-blue Massachusetts that had been held by the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.
“Don’t kid yourself. Scott Brown claims another victim,” Newhouse said of Massachusetts’ new GOP senator. “It’s mostly Democrats seeing the handwriting on the wall.”
The toll taken by grinding political conflict and gridlock that Bayh described rang true to Dave Nagle, a Democratic political activist and former congressman from Iowa.
“It’s not like going to work every day, it’s like going to war,” Nagle said in an interview. “You can only hear the bugle on the Hill so many times, then you grow tired of it. It just isn’t worth it.”
Nagle also cited the problems President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are having persuading voters that the stimulus plan is helping revive the economy and create jobs.
“It’s not something tangible they can touch. It’s not reaching peoples’ lives,” Nagle said.