- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Democratic retirements are fueling a Republican resurgence, but that still may not be enough for Congress to change hands next year. The recent decision by four veteran House Democrats to call it quits is raising questions about whether more will soon follow as the 2010 political climate grows more threatening in the midterm congressional elections, a year when government and business forecasters are predicting high unemployment and a slow economic recovery.

House Democratic campaign officials acknowledge that there may be some more retirements among their ranks, but they say speculation of a much larger number is nothing but “wishful thinking by the Republicans.”

“Republicans have been trying to predict a tidal wave of Democratic retirements all year, and they have been completely wrong,” said Ryan Rudominer, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman. Still, he added, “There could be some more Democratic retirements,” though he declined to say how many.

Some Democrats even have accused Republicans of floating speculative lists of other endangered members who may not seek re-election next year, in hopes of increasing the pressure on wavering members.

But independent election analysts say the number of Democratic retirements alone has not reached the point — so far — where it can seriously threaten the party’s 258-seat majority. That number would have to climb much higher before that could happen, they say.

“Democrats aren’t yet at the panic point in this process. Keep in mind that Democrats lost 22 open seats in 1994. Right now, they only have seven potentially open vulnerable seats, including the four recent retirements,” said David Wasserman, senior House elections analyst at the Cook Political Report.

“I would say that if the Democrats can keep their retirements among vulnerable seats to between 10 and 15, then I think they are in reasonably good shape. But if that number balloons past 15, then I think that Democrats are in trouble,” Mr. Wasserman said.

The four new House Democratic retirees in the past few weeks are Reps. Dennis Moore of Kansas, John Tanner and Bart Gordon of Tennessee, and Brian Baird of Washington state. Three more Democrats are leaving to run for Senate seats: Reps. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana, Paul Hodes of New Hampshire and Joseph Sestak of Pennsylvania.

Congressional election gains tend to occur more frequently in open-seat contests, and the seats held by House Democrats who are leaving are considered tossups at best, election forecasters say. Among the four recent retirements, Republican Sen. John McCain carried both districts in Tennessee in the 2008 presidential election and President George W. Bush carried all four districts in his 2004 re-election race.

“Democrats have one open seat that might pretty much be a goner,” said election handicapper Charlie Cook, citing Mr. Melancon’s district in an analysis for the National Journal.

Some of the retirees conceded that next year’s tougher political terrain was a factor in their decisions. “My shelf life was starting to run out. Our district clearly is a more difficult environment,” Mr. Gordon said in his retirement announcement.

Actually, the handful of retirements to date may be the least of the Democrats’ troubles in an election cycle in which the party in power historically loses seats in Congress.

A number of issues have rocked the political landscape, including the economy and double-digit unemployment; the bitter battle over health care reform; and unprecedented levels of federal spending, budget deficits and government debt.

Republican campaign officials say the latest retirements represent a growing recognition by Democrats that their party will suffer significant losses in 2010.

“What a difference a year makes,” said Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, in a memo last week to Republican House members.

“Democrats were at the peak of their political power following a sweeping and historic election. Since then, Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi has successfully steered her party into a political abyss so daunting that senior members of her caucus would rather throw in the towel than face a disgruntled electorate back home.”

Though independent election analysts do not think the Democrats are in danger of losing their majority, they are predicting that Republicans will make sizable gains.

“I think there is a good chance that Republicans can gain back the number of seats they lost in 2008, 21 seats, which is about half of what they need to get control of the House again,” Mr. Wasserman said. “Our current outlook is a Democratic loss of 20 to 30 House seats.”

When asked about this forecast, Mr. Rudominer said, “We’ve known that we face a headwind in this election cycle.” But he added, “We are incredibly prepared in a rough cycle, we have a three-to-one cash on hand advantage over them, and we have a record of success.”

However, Mr. Wasserman, who closely tracks the House races for the Cook Political Report, notes, “Republican recruitment right now and Republican enthusiasm may be even stronger than it was at this point in 1993,” just before the party went on to win back the House in 1994, ending 40 years of Democratic rule.

Still, he adds, “that doesn’t mean they will be able to sustain that for another year.”

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