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Democrats Expect More Departures

Rep. Bart Gordon (Tenn.) on Monday became the fourth House Democrat from a competitive district to announce a retirement in as many weeks, further energizing Republicans and putting Democrats on high alert, with several party strategists conceding that more departures are inevitable.

Republicans held up the late-year retirements as just a hint of what awaits the Democratic majority heading into the 2010 midterms, as nervous incumbents face a much tougher political environment than in 2006 or 2008.

“It’s official: Democrats now have a retirement problem,” declared Ken Spain, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Keeping up the party’s drumbeat of opposition to the agenda pursued by President Barack Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Spain continued, “This is evidence of the fact that the Obama-Pelosi agenda of government takeovers, permanent bailouts, and fewer jobs is taking a political and mental toll even on incumbent Democrats who were once perceived to be firmly entrenched.”

House Republican leadership aides touted Gordon’s retirement as a victory. “The more moderate Democrats that bow out, the greater the chance we have of picking up seats,” a senior House GOP aide said.

House Democratic leadership aides said that they expect more retirements soon, but only because the year is almost over and the House has already passed its top three priorities for the year: economic stimulus, climate change and health care reform legislation. Several older, long-tenured Members are being eyed as possible retirees in 2010, including Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) and Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.).

Some Democrats, though, stressed that they aren’t ready to hit the panic button yet.

“Our major hurdles have been crossed. It’s the right time” for more retirements, one senior Democratic aide said. “We’ve moved the agenda in the House.”

Steve Murphy, a longtime Democratic consultant and principal in the Virginia-based firm Murphy Putnam Media, noted that “it is the retirement season,” the point in the election cycle at which departing incumbents often announce their intentions.

Murphy said recent retirees such as Gordon, fellow Tennessee Rep. John Tanner and Washington Rep. Brian Baird were popular figures back home who would have weathered any difficulties produced by the national political atmosphere in 2010.

“They were not being chased out by the election year,” Murphy said.

Persuading incumbents to run again in 2010 is crucial for House Democratic leaders. They know that the party holding the White House almost always loses seats in a midterm election. And they know that avoiding a slew of open seats — which are harder to hold than those defended by incumbents — may be the difference between a moderately difficult election year and one in which Republicans could seriously threaten to erase the Democrats’ 41-seat majority.

GOP strategists are convinced they will be able to at least trim the Democrats’ majority by ousting junior Members who captured Republican seats in their party’s 2006-08 upswing. But the net gain of at least 41 seats that Republicans need to capture a majority is daunting. The last time a party swallowed that many seats in one gulp was in 1994, when the Republicans scored a 52-seat gain.

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