The surprise retirement announcement from Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) on Monday came as a political shock in Washington and fueled the notion that 2010 will be a bad year for Democrats.
While political experts are expecting Democrats to retain control of both the House and the Senate — albeit with slimmer majorities — pundits are saying pro-LGBT legislation would require an extra push from supporters following the election to make it through Congress.
Bayh formally announced Monday his intention to vacate his seat at the end of the year. Emphasizing his continued commitment to public service, Bayh said he wanted to retire in part because his desire to serve as a U.S. senator has waned.
“For some time, I’ve had the growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should,” he said. “There is much too much partisanship and not enough progress, too much ideology and not enough practical problem solving.”
Bayh’s retirement came as a surprise to many because he was seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party and has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. The senator reportedly had $13 million in his coffers for a re-election campaign, and was the leader of a group of moderate Democrats that had pledged to work for centrist policies on Capitol Hill.
The Indiana senator hasn’t been at the forefront of LGBT causes during his tenure in Congress, but stepped up to the plate when support was necessary. Bayh voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004 and 2006, and voted in favor of hate crimes legislation.
Michael Mitchell, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, said Bayh’s record on LGBT issues is attributable to the fact that he comes from a state that’s somewhere between moderate and conservative in its political leanings.
“I think whoever takes his place is going to lean toward the more Blue Dog, or the more conservative side of the Democratic Party anyway,” Mitchell said. “It would be wonderful to see someone who’s pro-equality there, and we’ll see how that plays out.”
But Bayh’s retirement means an incumbent Democrat won’t be running for the seat, increasing the chances that a Republican could win the spot in November.
That’s why Sean Theriault, a gay government professor at the University of Texas, Austin, called Bayh’s decision to leave the Senate “bad news for the Democrats.”
“It takes a race that could have gone either way to a seat that the Democrats will most likely lose,” Theriault said. “More than that, though, the Senate is losing a good senator. Bayh was a legislator’s legislator. He knew how to work both sides of the aisle to get good legislation passed.”
Bayh’s retirement isn’t the only factor jeopardizing the Democratic majority in Congress this fall. Public dissatisfaction with Congress has many pundits predicting Republican wins.
In addition to the general climate turning against Democrats, issues in individual races could make for a challenging year for the party. The announced retirement of Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) leaves little hope for a win against Republican Gov. John Hoeven in the Senate race this November. In Delaware, Republican congressman Mike Castle is favored to capture the Senate seat once held by Vice President Joseph Biden.
And in Illinois, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate seat, Alexi Giannoulias, is being dogged by his association with Broadway Bank, which reportedly engaged in questionable practices and is on the verge of Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. takeover.
Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is facing low approval ratings in his home state, making him vulnerable to a Republican challenger.
Still, while political experts are predicting Democrats will lose seats, most are saying the Republicans won’t be able to take the majority in either the House or Senate. Theriault said before the announcement of Bayh’s retirement, he would have thought the Democrats would hold 54 seats after the election.
“Now, it might be down to 53,” he said, “At every turn, the Republican primary electorate is going to have to make the right decision, catch some breaks, and conditions would have to deteriorate even more than they have for the Republicans to have a shot at gaining control of the Senate.”
Dan Pinello, a gay government professor at the City University of New York, said the growing number of Democratic incumbents who are announcing their retirement means Republicans will see more opportunities, but determining whether the Republicans will take control of Congress is difficult because other factors could emerge to influence the election.
“Both domestic as well as international events can happen at such lightning speed to change the larger political environment that the outlook can vary from month to month in terms of what’s going to be happening come November,” he said. “It’s very dicey to make predictions so far ahead of the general election.”
Still, Pinello said predicting Democrats will lose seats in Congress is a “safe” bet to make, although a GOP takeover would take “a seismic change” similar to what happened in 1994 when Democrats lost control of both chambers of Congress.
Charles Moran, spokesperson for the Log Cabin Republicans, said he doesn’t think Republicans will take control of Congress this November, although he predicted Democratic losses because the party will have to spend money on races that it thought wouldn’t be competitive.
“It’s going to give the Republicans a competitive advantage in terms of reclaiming some of these seats,” he said. “I’m certainly not sugar-coating it. We have a really big hole to fill on the Republican side, but I definitely think this puts the Democrats in a precarious position.”
With decreased majorities in Congress, advocates are saying pushing pro-LGBT legislation through to the president’s desk would be a more difficult feat.
Pinello said if the Democratic majority falls behind 55 seats in the Senate, it could cause a problem when seeking 60 votes to end any filibusters on LGBT-related legislation.
“That becomes a problem if ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ comes up for repeal or, more importantly, the Defense of Marriage Act comes up for repeal,” he said. “I think potentially that becomes an insurmountable hurdle if Republicans remain as cohesive as they have been on the health care issue.”
Even with decreased majorities, Mitchell said advocates will “keep working” with Democratic allies to push through pro-LGBT legislation.
“Our organization worked specifically for the last 10 years as an organization working in the minority,” he said. “I think Obama will continue to help push some good legislation for us and do what he can, but that said, there needs to be a pro-equality Congress that can help us do that.”
Moran said while Democratic losses would mean the party would have to “re-evaluate some of their votes and some of their stances,” he would hope Democrats and Republicans who would vote for pro-LGBT legislation would maintain their support.
“More than anything, I think it’s just another example of how we’ve got to spend a lot of time as a community working to start changing some of the hearts and minds of the key individuals who maybe are sitting on the fence,” he said.