- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2008

An exodus of House Republicans, fundraising shortfalls and apathy among Republican voters portend an ominous outcome for the party in the November congressional elections — a scenario that might linger for years.

At least 28 House Republicans have announced they won’t seek re-election this year, against just five Democrats stepping down in November.

“I don’t think Republicans seriously think they are going to take back the House” this year, said John C. Fortier, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “If you think it’s going to be two, four, six years down the road [to recapture the House], then you may not want to wait it out.”

Leon Panetta, a one-time chief of staff to President Clinton, who served as a Democratic congressman from California from 1977 to 1993, said the retirements also reflect an increasingly divisive culture on Capitol Hill.

“There was a time when whether you were in the majority or the minority there was enough bipartisanship and cooperation that you could still get things done, even though you were in the minority,” Mr. Panetta said. “It was a much more civil place in which to continue your service.”

Only five House Democrats announced they’ll step down in November — and as the prospects dwindle for a Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton presidential candidacy that would produce high Republican turnout — the advantage appears greater.

In addition, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the fundraising and recruiting arm of House Democrats, holds a 7-to-1 fundraising advantage over its Republican counterpart and expects to increase the Democrats’ majority from the current 231-198 edge.

DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell said the Republican retirements “cripple” the GOP’s “ability to go on the offense” to raise money and recruit strong candidates.

Republican leaders concede it’s highly unlikely they will recapture the chamber in November. But they say they are optimistic they can whittle down the Democratic majority by winning back some seats lost in 2006.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said the NRCC has recruited “quality candidates” for each of its open seats. And most of the seats are in districts that have voted Republican in recent elections.

“That will allow us to be on the offensive in taking on some very liberal Democrats who are sitting in some very conservative districts,” Mr. Spain said.

The publication Congressional Quarterly, which tracks all 435 congressional district races, lists only eight of the 28 open seats as having no clear favorite. Eleven of the races it considers “safe Republican,” while it lists three as “Republican favored.” The publication classifies six of the races as potentially competitive but that they “lean Republican.”

“And you have a Democratic-led Congress that has an abysmal approval rating,” Mr. Spain said. Congress’ approval ratings have hit historic lows in various surveys.

But without sufficient financial backing, any party will have a difficult time recruiting worthy candidates to fill open seats, said John Samples, a government and political analyst with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

“The best candidates are going to want to run in the best conditions,” he said. “And the best candidates will attract the most fundraising.”

The 28 House Republicans’ retirements is the most since 1996, when the same number of Democrats stepped down after losing control of the chamber two years earlier to the Republicans.

Several GOP retirements were a result of House members stepping down to assume higher offices. Former Louisiana Rep. Bobby Jindal resigned last month after he was elected to be his state’s governor, and former Mississippi Rep. Roger Wicker was appointed to the Senate in December to succeed Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican who retired the same month.

Between 1995 and 2007, Republicans generally held a slim majority in the House, which created an environment that discouraged retirements. But “it’s not fun being in the minority,” said Mr. Fortier.

Mr. Panetta said Republicans at least can take comfort in the notion that minority status, as well as a party’s tenure in the majority, is never permanent.

“If we’ve seen anything in politics, it’s that the wheel turns,” he said. “What’s up goes down, and what’s down goes up, and it’s just a matter of time.”

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