House retirements are running a bit ahead of schedule this cycle, at least compared with where they stood in 2005 and 2007. And if they even approach the same numbers as in the past two election cycles, retirements could play a significant part in the eventual 2010 House battleground.
Roll Calls Casualty List now shows a dozen House Members leaving their House seats to run for another office next year. In June 2007, the Casualty List identified four House Members who were not seeking re-election one of whom, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), eventually changed his mind and ran for re-election. Two years earlier, in April 2005, Roll Calls list stood at only six House Members not running again.
House Democrats have benefited greatly from retirements of late. In each of the past five cycles, more Republican incumbents than Democratic incumbents have decided against running for re-election.
There were 26 GOP retirements in 2008 compared with only six Democratic ones. Two years earlier, 10 Democrats and 18 Republicans opted not to seek re-election to their House seats, and in 2004, 12 Democrats and 17 Republicans called it quits, either retiring or running for a different office.
Republican retirements in the House numbered 22 in 2002 and 23 in 2000, while only 13 Democrats retired in 2002 and a mere eight Democrats walked away from their seats in 2000.
The last time more Democrats than Republicans retired was in 1998, when 17 Democrats and 16 Republicans did not seek re-election.
None of these calculations includes Members who were defeated in the primary, who resigned their seats in midterm or who died while in office. And retirements certainly are not synonymous with open seats, some of which were created by reapportionment and redistricting after the 2000 Census.
Still, the retirement numbers make it clear that Republicans have lost far more veteran officeholders during the past decade and have had to defend those open seats. Over the past five elections, 106 Republican House Members have not sought re-
election, while only 49 Democrats have walked away from their seats a significant difference.
Sometimes, of course, its easier for a party to defend an open seat than to have a damaged incumbent in the race. Not all retirements are unwelcome by the incumbents party. And yet, retirements generally create problems for the incumbent party, often leading to expensive and potentially divisive primaries or exposing a district that has changed its partisan bent but continued to reelect its incumbent.
Given the past three cycles totals 61 GOP retirements compared with only 28 Democratic retirements it would be extraordinary if Democrats were to have another huge advantage in open seats next year. But the appeal of nonfederal statewide races this cycle, combined with the ambitiousness of the Obama agenda and the inability of the House GOP to do anything to stop it, could lead still more Republicans to run for the exits, giving Democrats more interesting open-seat opportunities.
Obviously, open seats both reflect the nature of the political environment and contribute to that environment.