Republicans cheered the Friday retirement announcement of Rep. Bart Stupak as putting them one step closer to reclaiming the House. But Democratic strategists said they are confident the Michigan Democrat's decision does not reflect the leading edge of a new retirement wave following passage of the controversial health care overhaul.
Democrats pointed to the unique circumstances surrounding Stupak's decision — namely his lightning-rod role in the abortion debate that dominated the health care endgame, and the grueling demands of campaigning in and servicing his remote, sprawling district — in dismissing the suggestion that other beleaguered Democrats will follow him toward the exits. And, they said, the majority over the Easter recess largely avoided the bruising homecoming they encountered during the July Fourth break after passing a cap-and-trade climate change bill and in August on health care.
"I don't think people have gotten beaten up as badly," one senior Democratic aide said.
After getting caught flat-footed by a series of retirements late last year, House Democratic leaders have taken an aggressive posture this year to ensure they swing into action at the first hint of a new exit. "Every time there's even a whiff of a rumor, three degrees of separation that someone might be thinking about it, everyone attacks them," the aide said.
That response was evident in Stupak's case. As he weighed his options, he fielded calls urging him to run again from President Barack Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the dean of the House and a longtime mentor.
Announcing his decision Friday in Marquette, Mich., Stupak said he had accomplished his driving career goal in passing the health care overhaul. "After 18 years together, we have accomplished what you sent me to Washington to do: health care for all Americans."
[IMGCAP(1)]His "Stupak amendment" limiting federal abortion funding in the bill the House passed in the fall enraged abortion-rights advocates, while his deal with the White House to vote for the final passage of the bill in exchange for an executive order upholding existing prohibitions on federal abortion funding made him a target of anti-abortion and conservative groups.
Tea party activists, in particular, claimed a victory, saying it was their pressure that pushed Stupak out of the race.
Stupak said the vitriol he has faced over his health care stand "didn't play a big part" in his decision. But the timing of the announcement — the same week that the group Tea Party Express launched a $250,000 ad campaign against him and held a series of rallies — didn't do much to reinforce his claim.
Instead, it bolstered national Republicans' message that Democrats are running scared amid a health care vote backlash.
Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), Stupak's roommate and closest friend in the House, said the decision was a long time in the making but acknowledged the health care debate "may have accelerated" it. "He did realize that while he felt confident he could win re-election, it wasn't going to be easy," Doyle said. "He realized he was going to have to spend a lot of time running through that district. ... He realized it was going to be a tough battle."
Doyle said that knowledge helped tip the balance for Stupak, who had increasingly considered the move as distance from his family took its toll over the years. One of the lawmaker's sons, B.J., committed suicide in 2000, and his other son, Ken, settled in California after his recent marriage. "He felt very much alone that he doesn't get to spend much time with him," Doyle said, adding he "wants to be with his wife, Laurie, more and get to know her again."
After 18 years in Congress, Stupak noted that he has now served the district "longer than any other Congressman in modern times." And he said he considered retirement several times in the past but always decided there was "more work to do."
Stupak said Friday that he discussed retirement with his family last weekend and made the final decision Wednesday night.
Stupak has been re-elected comfortably after winning the open 1st district seat in 1992. With him out, the swing district, which stretches across Michigan's largely rural Upper Peninsula and down the coast of Lake Huron, will be up for grabs.
His timing helps Democrats by giving them plenty of time to recruit a credible successor — the filing deadline is not until May 11.
Democrats are not conceding the seat with Stupak's retirement and will be competitive if they can nab a strong candidate who fits the district's socially conservative but pro-labor tendencies. But the momentum is with the Republicans.
Several candidates had already jumped in the race to challenge Stupak, but the field is expected to grow as more seasoned public officials now take a look at the open seat. Former Charlevoix County Commissioner Connie Saltonstall declared last month that she would challenge Stupak in the Democratic primary because of his stand on abortion in the health care bill, and she quickly became a darling of the net roots.
Saltonstall has raised close to $100,000 on the Democratic fundraising Web site ActBlue and has won the endorsement of abortion-rights proponents NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women, so she will not be easily pushed aside.
But Bill Ballenger, a longtime Michigan political analyst and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, said Democrats "better come up with somebody who is pro-life" if they hope to win in the socially conservative district.
"If they're smart, they'll come up with a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment candidate. They'll come up with another Stupak," he said.
The names of state Senate Minority Leader Michael Prusi (D) and state Rep. Jeff Mayes (D) have been circulated. Ballenger said Prusi "is ideally positioned" for a run.
Michigan Agriculture Department Director Don Koivisto (D), a former state Representative, also could make a credible run, Ballenger said. Democrats are also looking at state Reps. Gary McDowell, Mike Lahti, Judy Nerat and Steve Lindberg.
State Sen. Jim Barcia (D), a former Congressman who does not live in the district, ruled out a campaign Friday morning.
Three rookie GOP candidates are already running for the 1st district seat, galvanized by Stupak's vote for the health care bill. The leading candidate is an unknown Upper Peninsula surgeon, Dan Benishek, who saw a fundraising surge after the health care vote.
State Sen. Jason Allen, who is term-limited this year, and former state Rep. Tom Casperson would be serious GOP contenders should they run. Casperson, who is running for state Senate in 2010, lost handily to Stupak in 2008, but Ballenger said that "it's impossible to beat an incumbent in that district" and that Casperson was "a very popular vote-getter in the state House."
Former state Rep. Scott Shackleton (R) could be another strong candidate.