Vigo County Party Chairman Joe Etling, center,  introduces Evan Bayh, right, to Terre Haute businessman Bill Maher during Bayh's visit Wednesday to his home turf. Staff photo by Jim Avelis
Vigo County Party Chairman Joe Etling, center,  introduces Evan Bayh, right, to Terre Haute businessman Bill Maher during Bayh's visit Wednesday to his home turf. Staff photo by Jim Avelis
Paul Helmke knew he’d be up against a tough candidate when he entered the U.S. Senate race in 1998.

His opponent was Birch Evans Bayh III, known as “Evan” to Hoosier voters who’d sent his famous father to serve in the U.S. Senate for 18 years.

The younger Bayh was coming off two terms in the state’s highest office, a job he’d won at age 32, gaining national recognition as the country’s youngest governor. Bayh’s first gubernatorial win had broken a 20-year grip on the office by Republicans. A popular centrist in a conservative state, Bayh was easily reelected four years later by 25 points.

Still, Helmke’s Senate bid caught the attention of The New York Times, which deemed it the toughest Senate election that year. The newspaper described Helmke — a Yale law graduate and former Fort Wayne mayor who’d headed the U.S. Conference of Mayors — as “well-credentialed.”

The same story called Bayh blessed with a “famous name” and “good looks.”

Helmke lost with 35 percent of the vote to Bayh’s 64 percent.

Now, at age 60, Bayh faces his first truly competitive campaign in an effort to take reclaim his old Senate seat. Millions of dollars are pouring into Indiana to help his rival, three-term U.S. Rep. Todd Young. 

And people like Helmke, who once found themselves in the wake of a candidate considered unbeatable in Indiana, are wondering if time has finally caught up with Evan Bayh.

Bayh parachuted into the race in July, pushing out the less popular primary winner Baron Hill, with nearly $10 million in campaign cash. He had far more money than Young’s $1.2 million. Early polls showed Bayh leading by 21 points.

But Young has closed the gap, and the race is a near dead-heat. The country is again watching since Democrats need the seat if they hope to regain control of the Senate.

Other people’s money

Money is flowing into the race, but that wasn’t the case for Helmke back in ‘98.

For him, the struggle to squeeze cash from big donors and outside forces came as no surprise. “Evan was considered safe from day one,” he said.

Helmke found a shred of hope late in the campaign, when the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent an urgent fund-raising letter to donors warning that the GOP was in danger of losing the Indiana seat, then held by Republican Dan Coats.

Helmke called the committee to ask when he’d see the money.

“We’re not giving you the money,” he said he was told. “We’re saving it for other states -- for races we can win.”

Helmke isn’t the only former Bayh opponent watching in wonder as Young, 44, makes a contest of what was supposed to be a walkaway for Democrats.

Marvin Scott, who ran against Bayh in 2004, said he’s still bitter that big party donors didn’t contribute more to his campaign, though he raised nearly $3 million on his own.

A Butler University sociology professor, Scott saw himself as a promising candidate -- an African-American Republican who better reflected the state’s conservative politics than Bayh. But, as he traveled the state, Scott said he kept encountering women – including Republican women – who told him they liked Bayh for his looks.

“I thought, ‘How do you beat someone that’s more handsome than you are?’ “ he recalled.

Scott lost the race by 24 points.

Sensing opportunity

This year’s contest isn’t such a slam-dunk for Bayh.

For one thing, his opponent is getting multi-million dollar help from the same national committee that once turned away Helmke.

Also, the numbers are breaking Young’s way. On Thursday, a new WTHR-Howey Politics Indiana poll showed Young rising to within one point of Bayh, at 40 percent to Bayh’s declining 41 percent. The difference between them is well within the poll’s margin of error of plus-or-minus 4 points.

Republicans, having done internal polling, have sensed the narrowing gap, and they see opportunity.

Late last week, a major GOP political action committee, the Republican Senate Leadership Fund, announced it is plowing $8.5 million into the race, with television buys on Young’s behalf. That’s twice what it originally pledged to spend.

That’s forced Bayh to seek more money from small and big donors alike. In late September, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee revealed it was doubling its original commitment to the Indiana campaign and now plans to spend at least $5 million to support Bayh.

Howey Politics publisher Brian Howey predicts the race will eclipse the $50 million spent four year ago, when longtime U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar lost his seat to Democrat Joe Donnelly.

Big spending is exactly what some Republicans hope for.

“We think Indiana is going to be the Democrats’ Waterloo,” Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, told The Associated Press. “They are going to spend a fortune here. And they are going to lose.”

Bayh and his campaign repeatedly declined to return calls. But in an interview with the New York Times in late September, he already blamed outside forces for the disappearance of his gaping lead.

A conservative super PAC associated with brothers Charles and David Koch pledged to spend at least $1 million in the race. The National Rifle Association announced last month a $500,000 ad buy to attack Bayh’s “anti-gun record.”

“Yes, I’m surprised, but that’s the Citizens United world we are living in,” said Bayh, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling that removed major limits on political fundraising and spending.

No longer unbeatable

Political analysts and Young’s Republican supporters see it differently. Bayh, they say, is no longer unbeatable.

“The last time Evan Bayh was on the ballot was 12 years ago,” said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics. “There’s a whole generation of young voters who don’t know who he is.”

Rudy Yakym III, a Republican fundraiser from near South Bend, concurs.

“Evan Bayh was elected governor of Indiana when I was 4 years old,” he said. “There’s a generation of voters who have no memory of him other than when he left the Senate to permanently live in D.C.”

Yakym’s swipe about Bayh’s residence echoes a theme of Young’s campaign.

After unexpectedly quitting the Senate in 2010 – claiming he was sick of its hyper-partisanship – Bayh joined a Washington law and lobbtying firm, McGuireWoods. Though he kept a voting address in Indiana --  at a small, one-bedroom condo in Indianapolis -- he and wife, Susan, now own two multi-million-dollar homes in Washington.

Young, putting to use the millions pouring into his campaign, has painted Bayh as an aging D.C. insider who is beholden to special interests.

Bayh’s own, meanwhile, cast him in an image that recalls a younger Bayh. He is energetic and fit.

Young’s ads stress his service as a U.S. Marine. And, they promise, he is more closely aligned with Hoosiers’ conservative sentiments.

Yakym said he called Young on the day that Bayh made his surprise announcement back in July, amid reports that prominent Democrats including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had persuaded him to run to reclaim his old seat.

Political forecasters were already handing the race to Bayh.

“But Todd knew things had changed in Indiana, that it wasn’t the 1990s anymore,” said Yakym. “He knew Evan wasn’t unbeatable.”

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