In Indiana's Senate Race, Political Royalty Tries To Put On A Fresh Face

Oct 13, 2016
Originally published on October 13, 2016 1:41 pm

There has been a lot of talk about how the explosive 2005 video of Donald Trump making vulgar comments about women may drag down Republican Senate candidates. But so far, it's not a game changer in Indiana. Trump is still favored to win the reliably red state, so that means both contenders for the open Senate seat are fighting over Trump supporters. That's an awkward spot for former Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat, who has been panned as a Washington insider during this outsider election year.

When Democrats recruited Bayh to jump into the Indiana Senate race in July, they thought it would be an easy win. But in three months, Bayh's commanding double-digit lead has shriveled to a virtual tie against Republican Rep. Todd Young. That's in large part because of the barrage of criticism Bayh is weathering for making a home — and making lots of money — in Washington, D.C., since leaving the Senate.

A hometown boy who hasn't been home

When the main political attack against you is that you left Indiana for Washington, there are certain mistakes you don't want to make — like getting your Indiana home address wrong. Bayh misstated the address of his Indianapolis condo on local TV news about a month into his contest.

It didn't end there. NPR talked to almost a dozen of Bayh's condo neighbors, including some who live right across the street from him, and almost all of them said they've never seen him around.

"I have heard that he lives in this area. In fact, I went to one of the condo association meetings and they did mention that, yes, he does have a unit in here," said Peggy Kantor, who lives right around the corner from Bayh's condo. She's a part-time knitting instructor, and she said she's around a lot.

Bayh's critics say he hasn't been spotted frequently at the condo the past five years because he has lived a world away from Indiana. After leaving the Senate in 2011, he joined an international law and lobbying firm in Washington called McGuireWoods, and a private equity firm, and multiple corporate boards. He has a home worth $2.5 million in D.C.

It's the kind of profile that gets many Indiana voters riled up. Like Melvin Meyer, who's still running a family woodworking business in Dubois, Ind., at age 79.

"He's just not one of us, I don't think. I think he lost touch with the people of Indiana," said Meyer, a Republican who used to really like Bayh until the last five years. "He left Indiana and went for that, that's my opinion."

Selling both change and nostalgia

Now Bayh is doing an awkward dance. He's running in an election year where the appearance of authenticity is paramount. And he's getting hammered as a Washington insider. But Bayh — the two-term senator and two-term governor — is now saying he's actually the outsider. He must do this because Bayh's path to victory requires winning over Trump supporters.

"If you agree with some of the Trump supporters, we need a change, well, then that's what I want to do — bring a better kind of leadership to Washington," said Bayh at a recent Democratic fundraiser in Kokomo, Ind.

But calling himself the fresh face is a strange move for Bayh, because his family has been political royalty in Indiana for more than a half century.

Buildings and roads bear the Bayh name in Indiana. Take Bayh Road in Terre Haute, which slices through vast acres of corn and soybean fields. Bayh grew up in this area, and it's where his father, Birch Bayh, is a near mythic figure. The elder Bayh spent three terms in the Senate, only to see his eldest son follow in his footsteps.

"Birch Bayh and Evan Bayh were homegrown names," said Beth Monroe, who lives in one of the small houses at the end of Bayh Road. "I mean, that was discussed around the dinner table around these farming communities. And they never seemed untouchable or inaccessible."

To Monroe, Evan Bayh doesn't represent change — which is fine with her, she's not a Trump supporter. Her affection for Bayh is rooted in the past. She's proud of his bipartisanship and his educational policies — especially a popular college scholarship program he started as governor.

"It's the Bayh legacy," said Monroe. "The best predictor of future behavior is always past behavior, and the legacy of the Bayh administrations — both of them — has been pro-people, pro-Indiana. Very positive."

And this is a conundrum for Bayh — he can't lose the nostalgic voters, like Monroe, but he also has to make the case to voters who want something completely new.

Who is the Trump/Bayh voter?

A voter who supports both Donald Trump and Evan Bayh has to at some level hold two conflicting ideas simultaneously — a desire for change and an appreciation for the past record of longtime politician.

Such voters exist in Indiana. Meet Kevin Davis of Westfield, Ind.

Davis recently stopped by the Kokomo Cone Palace, an ice cream and burger shop in the auto town. And he explained how he could find a way to support Trump and Bayh at the same time.

"You know, I think you reconcile it by not connecting. And just thinking independently about each candidate," said Davis.

Davis has been a solid Trump supporter, though when I spoke to him he said his confidence in Trump had been shaken by the video of Trump talking about how he has treated women.

But Davis has always been settled on Bayh.

"Bayh does a great job of making people think he's a Republican," Davis said, laughing. "I don't know if that's intentional or not, but yeah, I bet you would have a lot of confusion if you asked what party he belonged to."

Which to Davis, seemed like a good thing.

So is Bayh Republican or Democrat? An outsider or an insider? Old or new? Take your pick, Indiana.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A proud son of the Midwest faces questions about whether he really is. Democrat Evan Bayh is running for Senate in Indiana. Years ago, he was a popular governor and senator. And when he decided to run this year, it transformed the race. Democrats were suddenly far ahead in an election that could change control of the Senate. Three months later, he has only a narrow lead against Republican Congressman Todd Young.

NPR's Ailsa Chang reports that Bayh is taking heat for making a home in Washington, D.C., after leaving the Senate.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: When the main political attack against you is that you left Indiana for Washington, there are certain mistakes you don't want to make - like getting your Indiana home address wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Bayh says he never left Indiana and tried to show the proof.

EVAN BAYH: 1142 C, Canterbury Court, Indianapolis, Ind. It's on my driver's license.

CHANG: It's actually Canterbury square, not court. And I talked to almost a dozen residents there, including some who live right across the street from Bayh. Almost all of them say they've never seen him around, like Peggy Kantor. She lives around the corner from his unit.

PEGGY KANTOR: I have heard that he lives in this area. In fact, I went to one of the condo association meetings. And they did mention that, yes, he does have a unit in here.

CHANG: But you've never seen him?

KANTOR: I have never seen him, no.

CHANG: Many say that's because Bayh has lived a world away from Indiana. After leaving the Senate in 2011, he joined an international law and lobbying firm in Washington - and a private equity firm and multiple corporate boards. He has a home worth two-and-a-half million dollars in DC. It's just the kind of profile that gets many Indiana voters riled up. Fall Fest in Evansville is something Melvin Meyer has always wanted to attend.

Melvin, this was on your bucket list?

MELVIN MEYER: Yes. Talked about it for 20 years, coming down. And it never worked out.

CHANG: Because, Meyer says, he's just been too busy. He is still working at 79. Meyer runs a family woodworking business. And he's a Republican who used to really like Bayh until the last five years.

MEYER: I think he made a lot of money. I think he went there just to make money.

CHANG: What's wrong with making money?

MEYER: I don't. I didn't make any money (laughter). He's just not one of us, I don't think. I think he lost touch with the people of Indiana.

CHANG: So now, Bayh is doing an awkward dance. He's running in an election year where the appearance of authenticity is paramount. And he's getting hammered as a Washington insider. But Bayh, the two-term senator and two-term governor is now saying he's actually the outsider. He must do this because Bayh's path to victory requires winning over Trump supporters.

BAYH: If you agree with some of the Trump supporters, we need a change. Well, then that's what I want to do, bring a better kind of leadership to Washington.

CHANG: Calling himself the fresh face is a strange move for Bayh because his family has been political royalty in Indiana for more than a half-century.

This is Bayh Road?

BETH MONROE: Yes.

CHANG: This is the road named after the Bayh family?

MONROE: Yeah, it is.

CHANG: Bayh Road slices through vast acres of corn and soybean fields. It's in Terre Haute, where Bayh grew up and where his father, Birch Bayh, is a near-mythic figure. Birch spent three terms in the Senate, only to see his eldest son follow in his footsteps.

MONROE: Birch Bayh and Evan Bayh were homegrown names.

CHANG: Beth Monroe was sitting on her porch on Bayh Road.

MONROE: I mean, that was discussed around the dinner table in these farming communities. And they never seemed untouchable or inaccessible.

CHANG: To Monroe, Evan Bayh doesn't represent change. And that's fine, she's not a Trump supporter. Her affection for Bayh is rooted in the past. She's proud of his bipartisanship and his educational policies, especially a popular college scholarship program he started as governor.

MONROE: It's the Bayh legacy. And the best predictor of future behavior is always past behavior. And the legacy of the Bayh administrations, both of them, has been pro-people, pro-Indiana, very positive.

CHANG: And this is the conundrum for Bayh. He can't lose the nostalgic voters like Monroe, but he also has to make the case to voters who want something completely new.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Welcome to Cone Palace. How may I help you?

CHANG: The Cone Palace is the social hub of Kokomo on Sundays.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Can I have a medium pumpkin ice cream on a cone?

CHANG: And at the Cone Palace, I found that particular kind of ice cream swirl of a voter who could find a way to support Trump and Bayh at the same time. Meet Kevin Davis.

KEVIN DAVIS: You know, I think that you reconcile it by not connecting, you know, and just thinking independently about each candidate.

CHANG: Davis has been a staunch Trump supporter. Though when I spoke to him, he said his confidence in Trump has been shaken by the video. But he's always been settled on Bayh.

DAVIS: Bayh does a great job of making people think he's a Republican. (Laughter) And I don't know if that's intentional or not. I'd bet you would have a lot of confusion if you ask what party he belonged to.

CHANG: Is he Republican or Democrat, an outsider or an insider? Is he old or new? Take your pick, Indiana. Ailsa Chang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.