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Democrats Could Put Indiana Senate Seat In Play In 2016 — Especially If Evan Bayh Runs

UPDATE (July 11, 10:37 a.m.): Former Sen. Evan Bayh will reportedly announce on Monday that he is running for the U.S. Senate in Indiana again. While we don’t have recent polling testing Bayh’s support, his entrance — as we wrote below — probably boosts the Democratic Party’s chances of winning Indiana’s seat (which we calculated at 1 percent last month) and thus the Democrats’ odds of winning back the Senate majority.

The playing field for the 2016 Senate elections just became a bit more friendly for Democrats. Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana announced Tuesday that he will not seek re-election. Indiana is a red state, but Democrats have a top-notch candidate for the seat: Evan Bayh.

Here’s the catch: Bayh announced in 2010 that he was retiring from the seat that Coats now holds and condemned Congress and Washington on his way out. So he may not want to go back. Also, since leaving the Senate, he’s been working in the “influence industry.”

Still, Bayh is likely the Democrats’ best chance to take the seat — by a good margin.

He’s still very popular in Indiana. According to a Howey Politics Indiana survey from 2013, Bayh had a favorable rating of 60 percent. That matches a late 2010 American Viewpoint poll that pegged his favorable rating at 63 percent.

Bayh wouldn’t have to raise a lot of money if he decided to run. He has almost $10 million on hand. To put that in perspective, Indiana’s other senator, Democrat Joe Donnelly, won his seat in 2012 with less than $6 million raised.

As much as Bayh would have going for him personally, he’d still have to contend with Indiana’s rightward tilt; he might not be a favorite were he to run. Donnelly won in 2012 partly because his opponent, Richard Mourdock, made controversial comments about rape. Republican House candidates in Indiana romped to victory in 2012.

But Indiana isn’t Utah. Donnelly was close in the polls to Mourdock even before Mourdock’s infamous remarks. And Democrats came close to winning the other major statewide race that year, the gubernatorial contest. Not to mention, President Obama carried Indiana in 2008.

The point is that a Senate race in Indiana is winnable for Democrats — especially in a presidential year, without fear of the midterm penalty.

The problem for Democrats comes if Bayh doesn’t run. The Democratic bench is weak in the state. Indiana has been wiped clean of Democratic House members from swing districts. No Democrat has won the governorship in the Hoosier State since Frank O’Bannon in 2000. Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz is the only statewide elected Democrat who isn’t already in the U.S. Senate.

Democrats face an uphill climb in winning back the minimum four seats necessary to take back the Senate, but putting Indiana in play would help a lot.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.