WASHINGTON — Two-term Sen. Evan Bayh says ever-shriller partisanship and the frustrations of gridlock made it time for him to leave Congress. Republicans aren't buying it, saying he and fellow Democrats sense that voters will be after their heads this fall.
The Indiana Democrat, a moderate who twice came close to being added to his party's national ticket, said Monday he will not seek re-election this November. The announcement gives Republicans a strong chance of capturing his seat and makes it likelier that the 59 votes that give Democrats command of the 100-seat Senate will dwindle.
Bayh, 54, said his passion for helping people is "not highly valued in Congress." He said he did not love the institution in which his father, Birch Bayh, had also represented Indiana.
"There's just too much brain-dead partisanship," Bayh said in a nationally broadcast interview Tuesday. He said the public will continue to harbor hostile feelings toward Congress "until we change this town." He also said that "the extremes of both parties have to be willing to accept compromises."
Bayh denied an interest in running for president in 2012 either as a Democrat or independent. Asked on MSNBC if there were any chance he would run, Bayh said, "None, whatsoever."
But he also said the American people could deliver "a shock" to Congress by voting many incumbents out if the institution doesn't curb its divisiveness. Bayh said voters could simply decide they want to vote out people they believe are too partisan and said Congress should change its rules of operation "so that sensible people can get the job done."
Bayh's disillusionment with the Senate came as no surprise to other Democrats.
"The story line that people want is to say this was all about the bad political environment," said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster. "But I believe it's about the bad quality of life" in the Senate caused by long hours and constant bickering.
"It's not like going to work every day, it's like going to war," Dave Nagle, a Democratic political activist and former congressman from Iowa, said in an interview. "You can only hear the bugle on the Hill so many times, then you grow tired of it. It just isn't worth it."
'Running for the hills'?
Republicans saw a more partisan motivation in Bayh's departure.
"The fact of the matter is Senator Evan Bayh and moderate Democrats across the country are running for the hills because they sold out their constituents and don't want to face them at the ballot box," Michael Steele, chairman of the national Republican Party, said in a written statement.
Other political news of note
Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'
House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.
- Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
- Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
- Obama faces Syria standstill
- Fluke files to run in California
- Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'
GOP pollster Neil Newhouse saw Bayh's decision through the prism of the GOP's startling capture of the Senate seat in Massachusetts that had been held by the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.
"Don't kid yourself. Scott Brown claims another victim," Newhouse said of Massachusetts' new GOP senator. "It's mostly Democrats seeing the handwriting on the wall."
Bayh joins a growing roster of recent Democratic retirees. Others include Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island and Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. Yet the congressional casualty list has a decidedly bipartisan flavor, with recent retirement announcements coming from Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and GOP House members from Michigan, Indiana, Arkansas and Arizona.
"Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, you've probably had some very nasty town hall meetings lately, and most normal human beings don't enjoy being yelled at," said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "Democrats stand to lose more than Republicans because they're the in party, but Republicans are catching some of this too."
Democrats have a 255-178 edge in the House, with two Democratic-held seats vacant.
Open Senate seats The public has been upset by job losses, growing federal deficits and spending, huge bonuses awarded to executives of bailed-out financial institutions, and Washington's yearlong preoccupation with health care. One need look no further than recent polls to gauge the poisonous political atmosphere facing members of Congress seeking re-election.
In an Associated Press-GfK poll in mid-January, just 32 percent approved of how Congress was handling its job, including just 4 percent strongly approving, though Democrats got higher marks than Republicans. People were split about evenly over whether they wanted their own members of Congress to be re-elected, an unusually poor showing. And while nearly everyone named the economy as the most important issue, just one in five considered the economy in good shape.
A CBS News/New York Times poll in early February found 81 percent saying it's time to elect new people to Congress. Just 8 percent said most members deserve re-election.
Bayh's departure sent deeper shock waves than most. Telegenic and considered by some to have a promising national future, Bayh is known more for the moderate tone of his politics than for any particular legislative achievements. His parting words Monday had a notably plaintive tenor.
"To put it in words most Hoosiers can understand: I love working for the people of Indiana, I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives, but I do not love Congress," Bayh said.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.