Indiana Senate race tightens as Republicans take on Bayh

Indiana Senate race tightens as Republicans take on Bayh
© Courtesy of Evan Bayh

Democrat Evan Bayh’s last-minute attempt at a political comeback made this year’s Senate race in Indiana look all but over for Republicans hoping to hold on to the open seat.

But with six weeks until the general election, polls are tightening and the contest is looking more like a toss-up as Senate control hangs in the balance.

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The former Indiana senator has weathered attacks from both GOP Rep. Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungRand Paul's coronavirus diagnosis sends shockwaves through Senate GOP lukewarm on talk of airline bailout Trump, GOP scramble to keep economy from derailing MORE’s campaign and Republican outside groups who are trying to undercut the advantage Bayh has from being well-known in the state with attacks about his residency and ties to a lobbying group.

Bayh, who strategists say still has the upper hand, went from a double-digit lead in August to a 4-point edge, within the margin of error in a WTHR/Howey Politics poll, earlier this month.

“Anyone who thought this was going to be a cakewalk for [Bayh] I think was making a mistake,” said Andrew Downs, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. “Hehad not run a campaign in 12 years, and the nature of campaigning has changed.”

When Bayh announced his candidacy for retiring GOP Sen. Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsExperts report recent increase in Chinese group's cyberattacks Acting director of national intelligence begins hiring freeze: reports Ratcliffe nomination puts Susan Collins in tough spot MORE’s seat in mid-July, some political observers argued that less than four months until the election wouldn’t be enough time for Young to strengthen his statewide name recognition, especially compared to Bayh, a household name in Indiana politics for more than 50 years. Bayh’s father, Birch, was a senator from 1963 to 1981, and Evan Bayh was also governor for eight years.

The once-safe Republican seat shifted to a toss-up, and even in some cases, Democratic-leaning, once Bayh entered the race.

But over the last two months, Young has slowly become known beyond his southern Indiana district, especially with the influx of outside money supporting his campaign.

“No one expected that to happen so soon, if at all,” Republican strategist Jennifer Hallowell said about the closing gap in the polls. “But they have dominated the earned media across this state, and they have set the narrative really since the day after Bayh got into the race.”

Still, Bayh, 60, goes in with a strong advantage as a former senator and governor; he entered the race with more than $9 million in his campaign account. In contrast, Young has $1.2 million on hand.

His campaign’s ads include one on Monday that highlights a college scholarship program Bayh started when he was governor. And the Democratic Senate Majority PAC spent at least $100,000 on an ad knocking Young’s comments on Social Security.

But political observers note that Bayh, who retired from the upper chamber after his term ended in 2011, hasn’t run for office in more than a decade and has typically faced easier races. Joe Losco, a political science professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., said Bayh’s campaign may need to make inroads with younger voters who have never seen Bayh’s name on a ballot.

“The Bayh name is still magic among older Hoosiers, but there’s a whole young generation that really doesn’t know him and really is not familiar with the name,” Losco said. “They need to be introduced to Bayh in ways that Bayh may not have anticipated.”

To counter Bayh’s cash advantage, outside groups have come to Young’s rescue. So far, the Senate Leadership Fund has poured in almost $3.7 million in addition to $1.5 million from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and $1 million from Koch-affiliated group Freedom Partners Action Fund, according to Open Secrets.

Another group led by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, Americans for Prosperity in Indiana, is running a large ground operation. It says supporters have contacted more than 1 million people through canvassing and phone banking, as well as by sending mailers and running digital ads.

These groups and Young’s team have characterized Bayh’s post-retirement work for a consulting firm as lobbying, but Bayh countered with an ad of his own saying it is “just a lie” to call him a lobbyist.

Questions surrounding Bayh’s residency have also dogged his campaign. His critics have seized on comments that he “sacrificed” moving to a wealthy neighborhood in Washington and a CNN reportthat found the former senator’s voting status to be “inactive” in Indiana.

Bayh owns a condo in Indianapolis, and he cited the address on his driver’s license as proof he is still an Indiana resident, but he incorrectly stated the street name.

“I do think, in some respects, that it’s a bit of a death by a thousand cuts,” Losco said about the attacks. “When you’re doing everything that looks like and smells like you’re a lobbyist, the public doesn’t necessarily want to hear you split a hair that says you’re not legally a lobbyist.”

Young’s campaign labels Bayh a Washington insider, arguing that it’ll convince voters to back the congressman. In the year of the outsider, this characterization could work against Bayh.

“The more Hoosiers learn about what Evan Bayh has been up to the last six years, the more they are inclined to support Todd Young,” spokesman Jay Kenworthy said.

Bayh spokesman Ben Ray said the former senator will “stand up to the special interests” and focus on issues most important to Indiana constituents “like college affordability, protecting Indiana jobs from bad trade deals, and protecting Medicare and Social Security.”

Unlike other Senate battlegrounds, where the top of the ticket is also competitive, Indiana typically chooses the Republican presidential candidate — with the exception of 2008 — and GOP nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump orders US troops back to active duty for coronavirus response Trump asserts power to decide info inspector general for stimulus gives Congress Fighting a virus with the wrong tools MORE, who is up 9 points in RealClearPolitics’s polling average, is likely to carry the state.

But Bayh’s current polling lead means that some Republican voters are willing to cross over and vote Democratic down-ballot.

Young, 44, will need to convince voters not to split the ticket, and political observers argue that he’ll need to focus on his own record and positions. They say the only debate on Oct. 18 will be a critical oment for Young, especially as he seeks to improve his name recognition.

And while they believe Young must start defining himself, some observers said the Indiana Republican should essentially make the election a referendum on Bayh.

“I think at this point … part of the strategy may need to be convincing people to not vote for Bayh, not necessarily to vote for Young, but to not be excited about Bayh,” Downs of IU-Purdue Fort Wayne said.