Could Democrats' tidy transition in Indiana become an inner-party mess?
When Sen. Evan Bayh announced last week he wasn't running for re-election, Democrats seemed to coalesce around Rep. Brad Ellsworth as their preferred successor. But now Rep. Baron Hill, perhaps the Hoosier state's most well-known Democrat outside of Bayh, is saying the political equivalent of "Wait a minute."
"I've not made a decision, I'm still considering it," Hill said Thursday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "I'm making calls, measuring what people think. There's a lot of work to be done."
What Hill decides will have a big impact on Democrats' ability to keep the seat the popular Bayh first won in 1998.
If Hill opts out, Ellsworth will likely be the lone top-tier candidate for the seat. That would make the decision considerably easier for the 32 state central committee members who must decide the Democratic nomination.
If Hill decides to run, however, what seemed a clear shot for Ellsworth could easily turn into an open-air primary with two of the biggest Democrats in the state. It would also accentuate the fact that party insiders -- not voters -- will be picking the Democratic nominee, since the timing of Bayh's announcement left no time for a Democratic candidate to submit enough signatures by the filing deadline.
The party has until June 30 to select a replacement candidate.
Democrats don't need division in what Bayh called "a challenging environment" for politicians nationally. Voters are expressing rising anti-incumbent views and anger over Washington partisanship, high unemployment, federal deficits and lucrative banking industry bonuses.
"If he were to run, this process could get very, very messy, very quickly," said Robert Dion, a professor of political science at the University of Evansville. "It's a bad situation to start with, but a divisive fight for that nomination would make it much worse."
Hill said he does not believe his candidacy would lead to a street fight in the state's congressional delegation. He and Ellsworth are good friends, occasional basketball buddies and live in southern Indiana swing districts that border each other.
"There's no question it would be difficult, yes, because Brad is a friend," Hill told the AP.
"He and I have been in constant communications with one another since this started because when you get into situations like this, rumors can get out and its important for us to meet and make sure we're communicating," he added.
For his part, Ellsworth is all in for the Senate race.
In announcing on Friday, he removed his name from the ballot for his congressional seat in order to allow an ally, Democratic state Rep. Trent Van Haaften of Mount Vernon, to file for the party's May primary for his congressional seat.
Hill remains on the ballot for his 9th Congressional District seat where he faces a handful of lesser-known primary challengers and a potential November rematch with former Republican Rep. Mike Sodrel in November.
Liz Farrar, a spokeswoman for Ellsworth, said she had no comment on Hill's potential decision.
Other Democrats could also formally enter the race. Those mentioned include Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. and former Secretary of State Joe Hogsett.
Republicans, who scented blood even before Bayh announced his retirement, face a crowded and contentious field of their own. Former Sen. Dan Coats, who left office in 1998 and has drawn fire for his work as a lobbyist, is being backed by national Republicans. Other candidates include former Rep. John Hostettler -- whom Ellsworth unseated in 2006 -- and state Sen. Marlin Stutzman.
Dion, the political science professor, said the interest in the seat wasn't surprising.
"You look at recent Indiana political history and we've always had incumbent senators running for re-election," he said. "This is something that comes around once in a generation, and I guess it's understandable that there would be more than one ambitious politician in the state who would be interested."
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