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 weeks special election debacle in Massachusetts.
Rep. Marion Berrys (D-Ark.) announcement Monday that he wouldnt 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.
Youd 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 theyre 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 Kennedys 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 theyve 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 weve 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 cant move on while the Senates stewing.
Political professionals in both parties identify a number of House Democrats as possible retirees, including Reps. Leonard Boswell (Iowa), Rick Boucher (Va.), Lincoln Davis (Tenn.), Bob Etheridge (N.C.), Paul Kanjorski (Pa.), Collin Peterson (Minn.), Ike Skelton (Mo.) and John Spratt (S.C.). All sit in districts that would be difficult for Democrats to defend if they become vacant and if they run again, some of the incumbents may have to sweat re-election for the first time in a long time.
Republican operatives are fully aware that these senior Democrats arent happy about having tough re-election fights and are trying to shove a few toward the door.
The National Republican Congressional Committee on Monday began airing a withering attack ad against Spratt, calling the Budget chairman the architect of the most fiscally irresponsible budget in history.
But spokesmen for Spratt, as well as Boswell, Davis, Etheridge and Skelton, said Monday that their bosses are still committed to running for re-election. Mark Brownell, chief of staff to Peterson, said the Agriculture chairman traditionally does not formally announce his plans until February or March of an election year but is planning to run again.
Spokesmen for Boucher and Kanjorski would not provide definitive answers about the Members plans by press time.
Former Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), who spent the 2004 and 2006 cycles as chairman of the NRCC, said that even if the Democrats luck out and keep retirements to a minimum, sometimes a bad political environment is just too difficult to overcome.
The reality is, the NRCC under my chairmanship in 06 had a record amount of money, and we couldnt take care of all the problems we had, he said.
But many Democratic strategists say their superior fundraising as well as having Obama in the White House could help mitigate the effects of a difficult cycle.
Berry told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Monday that Obama recently waved off the suggestion that Democrats could be in for a repeat of their disastrous performance in the 1994 midterms.
The lawmaker also gave voice to the partys jitters when he told the paper that at the outset of the health care reform debate, I just began to have flashbacks to 1993 and 94 and said the results in the Bay State last week certainly bring back memories.
For some moderates, the White House is hurting more than it is helping.
There are a lot of Members who are very fed up with trying to fight the administration and trying to get things on the right course, Cardoza said in an interview. They needed to show the American people they were focused on the economy and building confidence in getting that right. That confidence has been shaken. We need to show competence in managing the government. Thats what the American people want.
Frustration that the party is adrift after a year of passing complex and expensive legislation boiled over at a Thursday morning meeting of House Democrats, sources present said. Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), who lost to state Attorney General Martha Coakley in the special Senate primary, said her defeat owed in part to voter anger at a health care bill they viewed as too complicated.
Capuanos appeal for simpler legislation focused on creating jobs got notable backing across the ideological spectrum. Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.), one of the most conservative House Democrats, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), one of the most liberal, made similar arguments, those present said.
Freshman Rep. Bobby Bright (D-Ala.), a top target for Republicans this year, took to the House floor later that day to make the case publicly. People are fed up and angry, and they think that Congress and the White House are not listening to them, he said. They think that Washington is moving in the wrong direction and is ignoring them altogether. As we say in Alabama, the Massachusetts election was a bell ringer, and leadership needs to listen to that bell ringing.
But David Beattie, a Democratic pollster who frequently works for Congressional candidates in the South, noted that the Republican and Democratic retirements in the House have been about even and added that voters are angry at both parties.
Its not a good year to be a Democrat, he said. But people dont like the Republicans, either.
House Democratic leaders have taken pains to demonstrate to their vulnerable Members that they have registered public discontent, are making adjustments and will do what is necessary to back them up in the fall. Pelosi several times last week pledged to heed the message of Massachusetts, and in closed-door meetings with different factions of her Caucus, has solicited ideas for how Democrats can reconnect with voters.
At a speech he is scheduled to deliver today at the National Press Club, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) plans to say that Democrats can turn voter anger into opportunity.
Our test, he will say in remarks prepared for delivery, is whether we can turn our frustration into something constructive whether we can be passionately positive.