Evan Bayh’s Next Move: A (Re)Run For Governor?

April 7, 2010 10:38 a.m.

When Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) announced his retirement from the Senate Feb. 15, the life-long public official gave few hints as to what he’d do next. But a knowledgeable D.C. Democratic source tells me Bayh’s intentions are clear to national Democrats: in 2012, he’s planning to leverage the independent, outsider cred he’s accrued in the wake of his retirement to run for his old job as Indiana’s Governor.

Bayh’s office told me today that Bayh “has made no decisions about what he might do when he completes his term in the Senate.” But national Democrats in Washington say they expect him to return to politics by running for the job that first launched him onto the national stage.Back in 1988, Bayh made headlines across the country when, at 32, he became the nation’s youngest governor. His record as a fiscal conservative and his youthful good looks — even after he left the Indiana governor’s mansion for the Senate in 1998 — made him a perennial contender for the Democratic vice presidential nomination (Al Gore was said to have considered him as a runningmate, and Obama campaign manager David Plouffe wrote in his book that Bayh was a ‘coin toss’ away from the VP slot in 2008.)

But for whatever reason, Bayh was never able to make the jump out onto a national ticket. So now, according my source, he’s heading back to the Hoosier state to run for governor once again when current Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) — who has his own national chatter to contend with — hits the two-term limit in 2012.

By then, the still-youthful-looking Bayh will be 56, far more seasoned than he was when he first ran for governor in ’88. But my source said Democrats expect Bayh will run again as a fresh, independent voice, willing to go his own way when he has to. He set himself up for that message in his retirement address, where he attacked the current partisanship in the Senate as beyond the pale. The speech garnered Bayh public accolades from mainstream commentators and gave Bayh the reputation as a man who tells it like it is.

Bayh can likely leverage that into a run as an anti-establishment independent in reddish-purple Indiana. But obviously, there’s a long way to go between now and then, and Bayh faces a crucial test with state Democrats this November before he can ask for their vote in 2012. When he dropped out of this year’s Senate race, Bayh was ahead — a ray of sunshine in a year that’s not looking to bright for Democrats. Some state Democrats who were shocked and saddened when he dropped out, and worried that he was going to hand his seat to the GOP.

Bayh has tried to make nice with state Democrats since abandoning them in February. In March, he gave $1 million to Rep Brad Ellsworth, who’s trying to hang on to Bayh’s seat for the Democrats, and he’s promised to work hard to help Ellsworth’s campaign. An Ellsworth win would probably heal all the hearts Bayh broke when he dropped out of the race. That would go a long way toward setting Bayh up for another run for office.

In his retirement speech, Bayh was somewhat cryptic when it came to what he was going to do after he leaves the Senate, though he suggested that politics wasn’t on the short list.

“I simply believe I can best contribute to society in another way,” Bayh said at the time, “creating jobs by helping grow a business, helping guide an institution of higher learning, or helping run a worthy charitable endeavor.”

But at the end of the speech, Bayh said he looked forward “to continuing to do my part to to meet the challenges we face.” Bayh said he’d do it as a private citizen, but for a man who spend his life in office, it could be that going back to the beginning is the next logical step.

Bayh may have given his plans away earlier in the retirement speech — before all the talk of private citizenship and working at a non-profit.

“I am an executive at heart,” he said.

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