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Two key Senate retirements in the span of 24 hours last week could have a dramatic effect on the outlook for the majority in the next Congress, a fight that won’t come into focus for well more than a year.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., made his retirement announcement Jan. 25, followed the morning of Jan. 26 by the news that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is also declining to seek re-election next year. In both states, the opposing party believes its chances are now starkly improved.
Republicans believe their odds of retaking the majority in the Senate for the first time since 2006 are on the rise. Yet hanging over the GOP’s prospects remains a troubling cloud that thwarted its efforts in the past two cycles — competitive Republican primaries that proved costly in the general election. The damage wrought has come in different forms — from deeply flawed nominees to busted war chests to difficult pivots to the general — and left the GOP six seats shy of the majority.
Whether Republicans can avoid such complications this cycle could be the determining factor in how close the party approaches that goal on a playing field that is undeniably tilted in its favor.
“My guess is there will be competitive primaries in most of these places. Open seats and vulnerable Democrats don’t come around very often, so it makes sense that more than one person in the state wants to run for that seat,” said GOP strategist Rob Jesmer, a partner at FP1 Strategies and a former executive director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “It’s something we’ve had to deal with previously, and I think we’ll have to deal with in the future.”
In addition to Harkin and Chambliss, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is also retiring. More retirements are likely to come, and there is a push from Democratic leaders for senators considering retirement to announce earlier rather than later, as the party faces the reality of defending 20 of the 33 Senate seats up this cycle. (There are also specials in Hawaii and South Carolina.) Their defensive stance includes seats in seven states that went to 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
With two retirements already announced, South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson and New Jersey Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg are the two other Democratic incumbents on retirement watch. Others may come as well, but almost all vulnerable Democratic incumbent senators are expected to seek re-election, including Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Max Baucus of Montana.