Democrats face losing majority as senator announces retirement

Bayh becomes the fifth member of his party to say he is leaving politics - leaving Republicans poised to gain ground in the Senate races.

WASHINGTON // A surprise decision by Evan Bayh, the Democratic Indiana senator, to retire rather than seek re-election is the latest sign that Democrats could be facing sizeable losses in the upcoming midterm elections, including the potential loss of their Senate majority. Mr Bayh is the fifth Democratic senator to announce retirement, doing so just a month after Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said they would not seek re-election.

While he faced a tough Republican challenge, many analysts believed Mr Bayh was in a strong position to retain his seat. Now some elections analysts see the Senate race in Indiana favouring Republicans. "It is unlikely that [Democrats] will be able to come up with a strong enough candidate to compete in a GOP-leaning state in the current political climate," the Cook Political Report, the website of the prominent elections handicapper Charlie Cook, said.

In the 2008 election, Barack Obama won Indiana by a single percentage point. He was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since 1964. Each party has 18 Senate seats in play in November, but Mr Cook predicts twice as many Democratic-held seats are vulnerable to a takeover. The Democrats, plus two independents who vote with them, currently have a 59-41 majority in the Senate. As the party in power, Democrats face the brunt of populist anger over high unemployment and an anti-incumbency mood that has swept across the country.

"An open seat is much more difficult for Democrats to hold in the current political environment," the website of another prominent handicapper, Stuart Rothenberg, said. Mr Rothenberg modified his rating of the Indiana Senate race from a "narrow advantage" for Democrats to a "toss-up" between the two parties. "Bayh's decision gives Republicans another excellent takeover opportunity". In announcing his decision, Mr Bayh, who was considered twice as a potential candidate for vice president, said he was frustrated with partisanship in Congress, ultimately conceding that he does "not love" the deliberative body to which he devoted more than a decade of his professional life.

"For some time, I have had a growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should," he said at a press conference in Indianapolis, accompanied by his wife and two sons. "There is much too much partisanship and not enough progress. Too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem solving." Mr Bayh said members of Congress were overly concerned with political manoeuvring and getting re-elected. As proof, he cited the Senate's recent rejection of a measure that would have established a bipartisan panel to monitor the deficit and suggest policies to reduce the country's rising debt.

"The measure would have passed," Mr Bayh said. "But seven members who endorsed the idea, actually co-sponsored the legislation, instead voted no for short-term political reasons." Mr Bayh's frustration with the gridlock in Washington reflects a broader disenchantment with Congress nationwide. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll showed that 70 per cent of respondents are dissatisfied or angry with the way elected officials in Washington handle the business of the people. Among those surveyed, 80 per cent said members of Congress are more interested in pandering to special-interest groups than in serving the needs of the people who elected them. Only 13 per cent believe that Congress represents the interests of the people.

Mr Obama, whose top domestic priority, healthcare reform, is bogged down in the polarised Senate, has sought in recent weeks to empathise with the public's anger and encourage more bipartisanship, as he did during his campaign. But the retirement of Mr Bayh, a moderate known for working with Republicans, raises new questions about whether room remains in Congress for legislators situated near the ideological centre.

In a statement, Mr Obama praised Mr Bayh's political career and his record of "reaching across the aisle on issues ranging from job creation and economic growth to fiscal responsibility and national security". Mr Bayh served two terms as Indiana governor before joining the Senate. His father, Birch Bayh, was a longtime US senator from the state. The retirement came as a surprise to Democrats, leaving little time for a replacement candidate to obtain the thousands of signatures required to qualify for the primary ballot on February 19.

A candidate will probably be named by the state Democratic Party.