Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana announced Monday that he will not seek a third term in November, a decision that, coming on the heels of other Democratic departures, could imperil the party's prospects of retaining control of the Senate.
Bayh cited the lack of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill as his main reason for leaving, adding to skepticism that the fractiousness in Washington can be repaired and undermining President Obama's efforts to build bridges.
"There is too much partisanship and not enough progress -- too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving," Bayh said in a statement. "Even at a time of enormous challenge, the people's business is not being done."
His announcement in Indianapolis came amid Democrats' rising anxiety about the party's national standing, especially among independent voters who tend to identify with middle-of-the-road Democrats such as Bayh. A growing anti-incumbent mood fueled Republican Scott Brown's victory last month in a special election for the Senate seat long held by the late Edward M. Kennedy, one of the chamber's stalwart liberals. Democrats were defeated in the 2009 gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. And senior Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan (N.D.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) announced recently that they will not run for reelection.
National polls underscore the American public's disenchantment with the government: Just 36 percent of those surveyed said they planned to vote to reelect their representative in Congress, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month.
The volatility of the political landscape and the Democratic retirements raise the possibility that Republicans could reclaim control of the Senate in the fall, according to political handicapper Charlie Cook, who puts 10 seats held by Democrats in the category of "most competitive."
"For months, the conversation has been about whether the Democratic majority in the House was in danger," Cook said. "Now you can legitimately talk about whether their Senate majority is at some risk."
Already this year, 43 lawmakers have announced that they will depart the House or the Senate -- more than the 39 who made similar announcements in the spring of 2008.
In a statement Tuesday, Obama praised Bayh, saying that "he has fought tirelessly for Indiana's working families, reaching across the aisle on issues ranging from job creation and economic growth to fiscal responsibility and national security."
Bayh's decision surprised the political world -- including Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), according to Reid spokesman Jim Manley. Bayh called Reid to tell him the decision about an hour after the news had leaked out.
Although Bayh pointed to the lack of bipartisan spirit as his main reason, those who know him say that he never seemed at ease in the Senate and that, with his aspirations for higher office disappointed, the price of public office may have been too high.
His decision to retire comes 18 months after he was shortlisted to be Obama's vice presidential nominee. It was the second time he was considered, but not selected, for the No. 2 spot on the national ticket. Bayh's own presidential ambitions were never realized: He took an exploratory look at the 2008 contest but ended the effort just weeks later.
After those setbacks, Bayh had privately considered announcing his retirement several months ago.
He was also facing the likelihood of a serious race this fall in a difficult national environment for Democrats. Former senator Dan Coats (R), whose seat Bayh claimed in 1998, announced this month that he would challenge the Democratic incumbent this fall. And despite a rocky start to his campaign, Coats posed what could have been the most serious threat to Bayh in his political career.
Republicans said privately that Bayh's support for Obama's health-care bill made him vulnerable, and they made it clear that they would make his wife, Susan, an issue in the campaign -- namely her membership on several corporate boards.
Still, polling released last week showed him leading Coats by 20 percentage points. Bayh also had one of the Senate's largest campaign war chests -- his $13 million would have armed him for a tough campaign.
"Ultimately, he could have held the Senate seat for as long as he wanted," said one Democratic consultant who has worked extensively in Indiana. "My sense is that he didn't want the job anymore -- it's as simple as that."
Bayh's announcement has Indiana Democrats scrambling before Wednesday's deadline to submit signatures to qualify for the ballot. Party strategists said privately that no candidate will be able to collect the thousands of signatures needed to qualify, meaning that the nominee will almost certainly be chosen by the Democratic state central committee, a group of two dozen party insiders. Several candidates have been mentioned, including Reps. Joe Donnelly, Brad Ellsworth and Baron P. Hill; Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel; and 2008 gubernatorial candidate Jim Schellinger.
"You're missing the main Democratic brand in the modern era of Democratic politics," said Brian Howey, who publishes a political newsletter about Indiana politics. "There's a drop-off there" when it comes to the other Democrats being mentioned as replacements, he added.
For Bayh, 54, the decision marks the close -- at least for now -- of a career that was long expected to end in the White House. The son of longtime senator Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), Evan was regarded as a political wunderkind almost since birth. At 30, he was elected Indiana's secretary of state. Two years later, in 1988, he won the governorship. He was reelected easily in 1992 and left office in 1996 because of term limits but he quickly pivoted in 1998 to a run for the seat being vacated by Coats, who was retiring. Again, Bayh was largely unchallenged -- winning that open-seat race with 64 percent of the vote, and his 2004 reelection bid with 62 percent.
In the Senate, Bayh has developed a reputation as a centrist. He serves on the Armed Services, banking, Energy and Natural Resources, and Intelligence committees. Throughout his tenure, he joined a series of working groups formed by moderate Republicans and Democrats to find middle-of-the-road solutions.
In 2008, for example, he was part of an effort to reach consensus on energy legislation. The 10 Democrats in the "Gang of 20," Bayh included, agreed to support a GOP push to expand gas and oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean in exchange for new investments in energy efficiency and conservation technology that many Democrats were seeking. The $84 billion New Energy Reform Act was introduced with great fanfare shortly before the general election but has since moved to the legislative back burner.
Bayh rarely asserted himself on controversial issues, however, and he often frustrated his Democratic colleagues by remaining on the periphery during major debates -- including the health-care reform effort that consumed most of last year.
Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.