Dec. 21, 2014

Democrats Fear Retirement Snowball Effect

Even as President Barack Obama prepares to deliver his State of the Union address — giving Democrats a chance to reset the political agenda for 2010 — House Democrats are girding for the possibility of more retirements in the wake of last week’s special election debacle in Massachusetts.

Rep. Marion Berry’s (D-Ark.) announcement Monday that he wouldn’t seek an eighth term may have been the first shoe to drop.

But while a new round of departures by Democratic Members in competitive districts would undoubtedly dampen Democrats’ spirits further, party strategists firmly believe that they remain far from the tipping point at which Democratic control of the House is in jeopardy.

“You’d have to have a few more retirements than this for you to reach a crisis point,” said former Rep. Martin Frost (Texas), who headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 1996 and 1998 election cycles.

So far, six Democrats including Berry are retiring from districts that are highly competitive. Frost said the number would have to reach about 15 for the Democrats’ 40-seat majority to be endangered.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, whose ranks may be thinned by the retirements, said departures are “not out of control yet.” But other party stalwarts worried about a snowball effect.

“Retirements drive retirements,” one top strategist said — and they’re compounded by the fact that the rank and file may be souring on the legislative agenda.

Clearly the Democrats’ stunning loss of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts last week has complicated the political landscape for House Democratic strategists, who have prided themselves on being ready for a potentially bad cycle and privately blame White House and Senate operatives for some of the bad karma now washing over their Members.

“We are paying the price” for party leaders not being prepared for the special election, said a political adviser to House Democrats.

Regardless of whether the mood of Democratic Members has changed since the Massachusetts election, DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said House leaders are continuing to do what they’ve done all cycle — staying in touch with colleagues who they believe are candidates for retirement and doing their best to persuade them to stay on the job.

Last month, when leaders began confronting a steady trickle of retirements, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters that she viewed incumbent retention as her top political priority. Her message to lawmakers eyeing the exits: “Be proud of what we’ve done. ... We fully intend to be in the majority, and they will be in the majority when they return.”

Erick Mullen, a Democratic media consultant, said House Democrats are being appropriately vigilant, but that even their best efforts can be stymied by political events out of their control.

“These things crystallize quickly, like rock candy on a string when the temperature is right, so somebody needs to keep the water stirred,” Mullen said. “The Speaker is doing her share but can’t move on while the Senate’s stewing.”

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