Indiana Democrats who saw their gains over the last four years wash away in a tidal wave of Republican victories are looking for a life preserver heading toward 2012. And their best hope might rest with the man some blame in part for at least one of the party's losses: retiring Sen. Evan Bayh.
Republicans celebrated a great night in Indiana on Tuesday as they won Bayh's U.S. Senate seat, two U.S. House seats and control of the state House. Democrats will have no control in Indiana state government, with all statewide offices and the General Assembly firmly in Republican hands.
Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker said Democrats need to keep fighting for their principles and "then go out and make a case to the voters." Their first big chance at a new pitch to voters will be in 2012, when the governor's office will be up for grabs as term-limited Republican Mitch Daniels will be leaving.
"The pendulum seems to swing back and forth," Parker said.
Rebuilding will be difficult for Indiana Democrats, especially since Republicans will control redistricting next year that will help determine congressional and legislative election outcomes for the next decade.
"The Democrats are really in trouble for a long time," said Ray Scheele, a political science professor at Ball State University. "The wildcard is what Sen. Evan Bayh will do."
Bayh is a centrist who ended his second term as governor in 1997 with a huge budget surplus and an approval rating near 80 percent. He has said he's thought about a possible run at a third term as governor, but that he won't begin to think seriously about his future until Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Not every Democrat is thrilled with the idea of Bayh as the party's savior heading toward 2012.
When Bayh announced in February that he would not seek re-election to the Senate, he left Democrats scrambling before a primary election filing deadline. Because of that timing, nominee U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth didn't go through a primary and didn't start campaigning until after he was nominated by the party in May.
Bayh donated $1.5 million to the Democratic Party to help Ellsworth and other candidates around the state, but Ellsworth's campaign never picked up steam and Republican Dan Coats easily won the Senate seat.
When Ellsworth mentioned Bayh in a speech Tuesday as he was thanking supporters, a man in the crowd yelled out "No! No! No!" Democratic Party spokesman RJ Gerard said the man appeared to be someone who simply didn't like Bayh. "They're out there, unfortunately," Gerard said.
But there are some significant reasons why any upset Democrats might be able to quickly forgive Bayh — including the $10 million he still has in his campaign account, the best name recognition of any Indiana Democrat and a track record of success in the conservative Midwestern state.
"Some are going to grumble, but I have a feeling others are going to say there has never been anybody more successful than Evan Bayh," said Robert Dion, who teaches politics at the University of Evansville.
Parker dismissed any notion of animosity toward Bayh, saying he would make an outstanding candidate for governor in 2012. He noted that Republicans won all over the country Tuesday and said Bayh was not responsible for the loss of the Senate seat.
Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington, noted there are also younger Democrats who could step up for a shot at the governor's office. Several Democratic mayors or candidates who ran for statewide offices this year may be interested.
Simpson also said the economic and political situation in Indiana may be different in two years, which could lead voters in a different direction.
"By 2012, they may be ready for a change of a different kind," she said.
Indianapolis voter Leslie Hankins, 32, said Tuesday that she's used to her party being in the minority in the traditionally Republican state.
"Democrats are always an underdog in Indiana," she said.