Retirement wave rattles Democrats

January 12, 2010

The back-to-back retirement announcements last week by Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan stunned even Capitol Hill insiders — and there could be more shocks to come.


Reps. Marion Berry of Arkansas, Rick Boucher of Virginia and Alan Mollohan of West Virginia are among those who rank at the top of House Democrats’ retirement watch list. So far, none have committed to running for reelection, and each holds a seat that could flip to Republicans in November.


“At the outset of the cycle, there was a sense that these members would be OK, that they would be invulnerable and nothing could shake them,” said Cook Political Report House analyst David Wasserman. “Clearly, the last six months has shaken them and washed away this aura of invincibility.”


The sense of uncertainty is rattling the nerves of Democrats and spurring gleeful speculation by Republicans.


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who have both tried to tamp down retirements, have pressed outgoing members to get the news out early so the party can recruit replacements.


But when four House Democrats complied — and began a string of House retirement announcements — it set off fears of a domino effect. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen was soon scrambling to get assurances from other members rumored to be looking for the exit. Afterward, Van Hollen sought to calm the waters by telling ABC News, “I’m not sure exactly what the pattern’s going to be, but what I do know is we’re not going to see a wave of Democratic retirements like we saw in 1994,” when Republicans gained control of the House.


Most of the Democrats who announced they are stepping down at the end of their term have several things in common. They’re in their 50s or 60s, have spent most of their career in Washington and sport impressive records of legislative accomplishment.


Some are hoping to pad their savings accounts with cushy lobbying jobs while their party’s firmly in power; others have said they’re looking forward to a less time-consuming job that will enable them to spend more time with their families.


And most important, on the political front, many had been entrenched members of Congress who were facing the all-too-real prospect of their first tough election in years, if not decades.


Tennessee Rep. Bart Gordon is a proto­type of the Democrats looking to leave Washington. He was elected in 1984, in a crowded field, to the House seat Al Gore vacated to run for the Senate. After spending 25 years in the House, Gordon now chairs the House Science and Technology Committee.


Despite an overall Southern shift toward Republicans in the past few decades, the Tennessee native hadn’t faced a tough reelection in more than a decade — and in 2008, he faced no Republican opposition at all.


But this year, he was facing the fight of his political life. One poll commissioned by a Republican opponent showed the 13-term congressman losing.


“Clearly, I was going to have a difficult race — one I think that was winnable but difficult,” Gordon told POLITICO.


“Do you put your staff through all of that?” he said he asked himself. “You look, and you say: ‘I’ve been a member of Congress, served on major committees, been chairman of a committee, passed landmark legislation; I’d done everything I hoped to do over here.’”


The decision also was personal, he said. “Part of it was turning 60 years old and recognizing I have 10 years or more that I want to work on a full-time basis. Do I do this for another 10 years or take an option for another career?”
Dodd and Dorgan sport similar records of legislative accomplishment in the Senate and were facing the toughest races in their congressional careers. Since he was first elected to the House in 1974, Dodd has won reelection with more than 56 percent of the vote.


But his public approval ratings tanked after it was revealed that he’d inserted legislative language that paved the way for billions of dollars in bonus money to American International Group executives. Dodd, who is the chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, said he did it at the administration’s insistence. But his early attempts to disown the act took another toll on credibility damaged by an ill-fated presidential campaign in 2008.


Dorgan has represented North Dakota in Congress since 1980 and has been easily reelected despite representing a solidly Republican state. But he saw trouble ahead when popular Republican Gov. John Hoeven began considering a challenge. Dorgan insists he still would have held his seat — and ousting an incumbent is never easy — but now the question will forever remain moot.

Not all retirements are created equal. While Democrats are touting the fact that more Republicans have announced they’re not running for reelection in both the House and the Senate, the reality is that the Democratic retirements in the House have come from districts that are tougher to defend.


Of the 10 House Democrats to announce they’re not running for reelection, The Cook Political Report has rated eight of the races as competitive — with two seats already rated as likely to flip to Republicans. Of the 13 House Republicans leaving office, just two of their races are rated as competitive — with one seat likely to flip to Democrats.


Indeed, the shifting political winds even prompted one Republican to withdraw his retirement. Rep. Jim Gerlach, who represents a Democratic-friendly suburban Philadelphia seat, last week dropped out of the Republican gubernatorial primary and announced that he’d stand for reelection.


“The quality of these retirements is more important than the quantity. The more important question than who has more retirements is who has more problematic retirements,” said Wasserman.


The impact of retirement on the Senate political picture is mixed: Republicans faced their own retirement wave last year and are defending five seats in battleground states — Ohio, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Missouri and Florida — giving Democrats an opportunity to stem losses.


Dodd’s retirement also gives his party a boost since highly popular Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal quickly took his place on the Democratic ballot. Still, one senior Democratic operative said there wouldn’t have been as much urgency for Dodd to step down if the national political environment for Democrats weren’t as bad as it currently is.


In contrast, Dorgan’s retirement in North Dakota gives Republicans a strong chance to pick up his seat, with Hoeven as the expected GOP nominee.


“It’s a symptom of where we are right now — it’s a tough time for us,” said one senior Democratic operative. “Nobody’s having any fun up there on the Hill.”

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