- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 31, 2009

A number of House Democrats have announced they are retiring, and party officials say more could follow in a tough midterm election year of high unemployment, a slow economic recovery and a very angry electorate.

A growing number of Democrats have read the handwriting on the wall that tells of bleak prospects for their party in 2010 when Republicans are expected to pick up seats in the House and possibly in the Senate, too.

Historically, the party out of power makes gains in an administration’s midterm point, and that seems to be what is in store for the Democrats this time around as well, if recent polls are any guide.

It is difficult to remember when the American people have expressed such a deep level of disdain for Congress as they do now under the leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll finds a pathetic 7 percent of Americans give Congress an above average job approval score. Worse, 34 percent now call this Congress one of the worst.

The survey numbers are especially bleak among incumbents. Only 38 percent say their representative should be re-elected, and 49 percent say it’s time to give a new person a chance - the same percentage who said that before Republicans took control of the House in 1994.

No one is saying that retirements alone endanger the Democrats’ 258-seat majority. Independent election analysts I’ve talked to say the number would have to climb a lot higher before than can happen.

“Democrats aren’t 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, which closely tracks congressional races.

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

As this is written, four Democrats have announced their retirement in the past few weeks, including Reps. Dennis Moore of Kansas, John Tanner and Bart Gordon of Tennessee, and Brian Baird of Washington state. Three other Democrats were leaving the House to run for Senate seats: Reps. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, Paul W. Hodes of New Hampshire and Charlie Melancon of Louisiana.

The seats of the four pure retirements are vulnerable and considered tossups at best. Arizona Sen. John McCain carried both Tennessee districts in the 2008 presidential election, and President Bush carried all four of the retirement districts in his 2004 re-election.

Among them, Mr. Gordon was the most candid about the tough political climate he faced next year and the factors that caused him to call it quits: “My shelf life was starting to run out. Our district clearly is a more difficult environment,” he said in his retirement announcement.

Some are already being put in the Republican Party’s column. “Democrats have one open seat that might pretty much be a goner,” analyst Charlie Cook said of Mr. Melancon’s conservative-leaning district.

Republican campaign officials say that they expect more retirements to come as Democrats in more conservative districts acknowledge that their re-election prospects are shaky.

“What a difference a year makes,” said Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, in a memo to his House colleagues. “Democrats were at the peak of their political power following a sweeping and historic election. Since then, Speaker 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.”

House Democratic campaign officials fear there may be more retirements to come, but they dismiss Republican talk of a large exodus as mere “wishful thinking by the Republicans.”

“There could be some more Democratic retirements,” said Ryan Rudominer, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, although he declined to say how many.

For now, election handicappers do not think House Democrats are in danger of losing majority control, although they are forecasting a larger Republican pickup in seats.

“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 told me. “Our current outlook is a Democratic loss of 20 to 30 House seats.”

Those losses could grow even larger next year if joblessness remains high, forecasts of a weak recovery take hold, and there is an angry voter backlash against the Democrats’ big government tax-and-spend binge at the expense of long-term economic growth and job creation.

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent of The Washington Times.

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