Reporting from Washington — In a sign that political paralysis in Congress is taking a toll on its own members, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) on Monday unexpectedly announced he would not run for reelection this year, blasting the Senate for its recent failure to address major issues like reducing unemployment and the federal deficit.
"After all these years, my passion for service to my fellow citizens is undiminished, but my desire to do so in Congress has waned," said Bayh, whose decision to step down was all the more surprising because he appeared almost certain to be reelected to a third term in November even though he represents a predominantly Republican state.
"I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives," Bayh said, "but I do not love Congress."
Bayh's decision to quit, despite a well-stocked campaign coffer, is the latest in a series of blows to Democrats' efforts to cut potential Senate losses in November's midterm election. His retirement brings the number of seriously contested seats now held by Democrats to about eight.
It also comes in the wake of major disappointments in key states where favored candidates decided not to run, and the upset victory of a Republican last month in the Massachusetts Senate race.
But the announcement, made at a news conference in Indianapolis, did more than just depress Democratic morale in an election year that was expected to whittle the party's 59-vote majority in the Senate.
Bayh also gave voice to a frustration that crosses party lines over the poisonous political environment surrounding Capitol Hill and the gridlock that is allowing big national problems to grow worse.
"It's a pervasive feeling that has taken hold," said former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democratic associate of Bayh. "The low ratings and criticism of Congress, the lack of progress on policy, the excessive partisanship that has gripped the place have made everyone much more aware of the disadvantage of remaining in office."
Indeed, Bayh's retirement -- traditionally an occasion for gracious bipartisan praise of a politician's career -- was greeted with a broadside from the head of the Republican National Committee.
"Sen. 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," said RNC Chairman Michael S. Steele. "Americans are making it clear that they are tired of the Democrats' binge-spending agenda, are done being ignored and are going to do something about it in November."
Bayh, elected to the Senate in 1998, served as the Indiana governor from 1988 to 1996. He is the son of former Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.).
He is a moderate Democrat at a time when the political center is a shrinking piece of real estate. That added to his frustrations in the Senate -- and contributed to his failure to realize his higher political ambitions.
Bayh briefly tried and failed to win his party's 2008 presidential nomination. He was twice a contender to be his party's vice presidential nominee -- in 2004, as John F. Kerry's running mate, and in 2008, as Barack Obama's.
A source close to Bayh said he also was interested in serving in President Obama's Cabinet, but the desired offer was not made.
"Being a bridesmaid a couple of times and not being chosen had a big impact on him," said his associate, who asked not to be named to speak candidly about frustrations that Bayh has expressed only in private.
In the Senate, Bayh was often at odds with his party leaders on fiscal issues. In the healthcare debate, he was among the deficit-conscious moderates whose support was in question. He became more supportive after Democratic leaders agreed to changes in the bill that helped medical device manufacturers, a key group in Indiana.
Bayh, who had griped about the balky legislative machinery of the Senate early in his career, voiced particular frustration at two recent incidents.
When a bipartisan group gave party leaders a $85-billion job-creation bill, it was criticized by the left and the right and was dramatically scaled back as a result.
When the Senate voted on a Bayh-backed bill to create a commission to reduce the federal deficit, it was voted down -- partly because of the defection of seven Republicans who had once sponsored the idea.
"Even at a time of enormous challenge, the people's business is not being done," Bayh said Monday, citing those two issues. "Examples of this are legion."
Bayh had been preparing to run for a third Senate term in November. The challenge looked tougher when ex-Sen. Dan Coats began seeking the GOP nomination. Democrats immediately began attacking Coats, a lobbyist in his post-Senate career, for ties to special interests.
Bayh said the prospective reelection fight had no effect on his decision to retire, and independent political handicappers agreed that he was favored to win.