No Gold Watches Being Offered

House Democrats Try to Stave Off Member Retirements

Posted January 23, 2003 at 4:34pm

By the time Election Day 2004 rolls around, House Democrats will be just two months shy of having spent a decade in the minority. It will mark the longest period of time the party has been out of power since the 1920s, an anniversary none of its Members plans to celebrate.

To make matters worse, the current bleak situation for Democrats could prompt more of them to head for the exits in the next two cycles, a scenario that would further complicate the party’s efforts to win back the House.

While there is no indication at this point that Democrats will see an onslaught of retirements in 2004, a residual frustration with the party’s inability to regain control of the House in the past four cycles persists.

“I think that frustration is real,” Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in an interview last week. “[But] I don’t get the sense, as I have in years past, that there are a lot of Members talking about, ‘Therefore, I’m going to retire. Therefore, I’m going to get out.’ … We’re not looking at a major outflow at this point in time.”

After experiencing a monumental number of retirements in the early- and mid-1990s — including a record 41 Members in 1992 on the heels of the House Bank scandal and redistricting — Democrats have successfully minimized the number of lawmakers choosing to leave the House in the past three cycles.

In 2000, as the party boasted it was on the cusp of winning back the House, only seven Democrats retired or sought other offices. Last year that number almost doubled, but it remained well below the number of Republican retirements in the past two cycles.

However, after Democrats lost ground at the polls last November — giving Republicans a 12-seat majority — some believe the task of stemming attrition, and preventing retirements from snowballing, is now more daunting.

“If everybody’s staying, well then there’s a better chance that you can win the majority,” one senior Democratic aide said, noting a past retention argument. “If people start leaving … you look around and see that snowball going.”

The aide continued: “We’re where the Republicans were after the 1998 elections. “We’re swimming upstream against conventional wisdom. It’s as wrong to say that the Democrats can’t win the House in 2004 as it was to say Republicans couldn’t hold the House in 2000.”

Republicans have seen considerably more retirements than Democrats in the past two cycles. In 2000, the first year in which term limits for GOP committee chairmen came due, 23 Republicans retired or sought higher office. Last year, the combination of redistricting and several open Senate seats prompted 22 Republicans to head for the exit. That number does not include Members who resigned or were defeated in primary or general elections, only those who did not seek re-election or sought other offices.

In one of the 2002 elections’ few bright spots for Democrats, the party did well picking up seats vacated by Republicans. While Democrats saw only one of their open seats switch hands (Indiana’s 2nd district), Republicans lost four open seats to the other party (Georgia’s 3rd, Maryland’s 2nd, Louisiana’s 5th and Tennessee’s 4th).

Howard Wolfson, who served as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last cycle, noted that since 1994, the party has also done a good job of protecting incumbents, one of the key elements he cited in stemming retirements.

“Members from vulnerable districts know that the DCCC is invested in their continued success,” he said.

Wolfson said the energy created by the new Democratic House leadership has renewed Members’ “sense of optimism about our electoral prospects.”

“That’s one key to retention, is Members believing in the leadership and believing that the leadership has a plan for electoral success, and I think that that exists,” Wolfson said.

The senior Democratic aide reiterated the importance of developing and being able to show Members a two- or four-year election roadmap, especially to those who are weighing statewide bids.

“You’ve got to demonstrate that there’s a plan and get Members to buy into it,” the aide said. “You’ve got to show them the way.”

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the Democratic leadership have already begun the process of reaching out to Caucus members to inquire about their re-election plans. The conversations began in November and are ongoing through the first months of this year.

Democrats also plan to discuss their election “game plan” for “getting back to that magic number” in the majority at their retreat this week in Nemacolin, Pa., according to one senior Democratic leadership aide.

“I think we’ll try to convince members, which I believe to be the case and Nancy believes to be the case, that we do have a good opportunity at taking back the House,” Hoyer said.

The Old Bulls

While Democrats have stemmed retirements in recent years, the party also has a greater number of Members who would appear to be moving closer to retirement.

Of the 68 Members in the 108th Congress who have served 10 or more terms, 40 are Democrats. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the dean of the House, was just elected to a 24th term. Democratic Reps. John Conyers (Mich.), David Obey (Wis.), Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) and John Murtha (Pa.) are serving their 20th, 18th, 17th and 16th terms, respectively.

While those Members might seek to retire in the next few years, Democrats say that the party’s newly elected leadership has energized the Caucus and perhaps prevented the retirement flood gates from being flung wide open, if only temporarily.

“You just don’t get a sense that the Murthas and the Rangels and the Dingells and those guys are going anywhere,” said one former Democratic campaign operative. “Are there going to be some retirements? Yes. But the surprising thing is there is going to be a number of retirements on [the Republican] side too.”

Meanwhile, many of the Democrats who have served at least two decades in the House represent reasonably safe districts.

“I don’t think there are many [older Members] anymore in marginal seats,” the former campaign operative noted. “In the mid-’90s a lot of the guys retired from tough seats.”

But there are currently more than a handful of marginal seats, among the 40 Democrats serving 10 terms or more, that will likely switch hands or be fiercely competitive when they are vacated.

Party leaders concede it will be virtually impossible to hold the seats of Texas Democratic Reps. Charlie Stenholm and Ralph Hall when they leave the House. Both are Blue Dog Coalition members whose districts voted 72 percent and 70 percent, respectively, for then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) in the 2000 presidential contest. Likewise, Reps. John Spratt (D-S.C.), Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.) all represent districts that voted 55 percent or more for Bush in 2000.

None of those Members have said they will retire after this Congress, but they are continually being monitored by leadership.

Hoyer said Hall has not given him any indication that he is actively looking at retirement, and the Minority Whip called Stenholm the “single most compelling voice for fiscal responsibility” in the House.

“We need him here,” Hoyer said. “I just think Charlie has the fire in his belly and wants to stay.”

At the same time, Democrats also have to keep an eye on younger Members who may have more of a vested interest in retiring soon and putting their Congressional ties to a more lucrative use.

Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), who represents a conservative district Democrats have little hope of holding when he leaves Congress, is among those frequently rumored to be eyeing retirement rather than continue to fight tough re-election battles every two years.

Moving On, Moving Up

While Democrats consistently monitor retirements, the party is also keeping tabs on those Members eyeing bids for higher office.

The number of Members tempted to leave for other office may be somewhat less this cycle because of the decreased number of governor’s races. In 2002, 36 states held gubernatorial elections; there are only 11 being held next year.

Still, the party risks losing several swing-district Democrats, who are contemplating Senate bids in 2004.

Reps. Ken Lucas (D-Ky.) and Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) are considering challenging GOP Senators next year. Both represent solidly Republican districts that are likely to switch parties once they are vacated. Lucas, who won with 51 percent last year, would break a term-limits pledge if he runs for re-election.

Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) has also been floated as a potential Senate candidate if Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) decides not to run for re-election. His eastern 2nd district, which voted 53 percent for Bush in 2000, would see a competitive race to replace him if he runs.

In Utah, Rep. Jim Matheson (D) is considered a likely candidate for governor if current Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) does not seek re-election in 2004. Matheson won the redrawn 2nd district seat by just 2,015 votes last year, and it would almost assuredly be picked up by Republicans if he leaves.

Democrats already scored one retention victory this cycle when Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) announced this month he would not run for governor next year. His marginal 9th district seat, like those of Lucas and Moore, will be difficult — if not impossible — for Democrats to hold.

Hill was named one of seven Chief Deputy Minority Whips for the 108th Congress, and Hoyer played a key role in convincing him to stay in the House.

“Hey, if you like being in Congress, if you feel that you’re still making a contribution, then stay,” Hoyer said, offering a piece of the Democrats’ pitch to Members contemplating an exit. “Because we are going to continue to make an effort to take this House back and if we do take this House back, your opportunities for contribution and success are obviously greater.”

Hoyer then quickly added what will perhaps become the most important part of the sell when leaders try to convince waffling Members to return next Congress. “And, we can’t afford to lose your seat,” he said. “Because from a net standpoint if you lose any seat, you’ve got to pick up two.”