Schumer Targets Potential Retirees

Posted February 15, 2005 at 6:40pm

Hurt by the retirements of five Southern Members last cycle, Senate Democratic leaders are moving quickly to secure commitments from their colleagues up for re-election in 2006 to run again.

Since the start of 2005, three Democratic incumbents who had been question marks, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Robert Byrd (W.Va.) and, most recently, Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), have all pledged to seek another term next year.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) called Bingaman’s decision earlier this week a “tremendous shot in the arm.”

In addition, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) recently hired a campaign manager, making it appear much more likely that he’ll run again in 2006; Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.), an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, told Roll Call this week he would run for a fourth term, although some doubts remain about the 70-year-old’s health.

Minnesota Sen. Mark Dayton, who was widely seen as one of the party’s most vulnerable incumbents, decided not to run for a second term last week — a move that was privately applauded by many national Democrats who believed he could not be re-elected. (See story p. 9.)

“Last time we were hurt by five retirements,” said Schumer in an interview Tuesday. “We’re trying to minimize them as much as possible this time.”

Those decisions leave only Sens. Paul Sarbanes (Md.), who openly contemplated retirement in 2000 before running and winning a fifth term, and Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), who will be 82 on Election Day 2006, as the only obvious questions on the Democratic side.

Akaka has told the leadership he will run again; Sarbanes has said privately he is leaning toward the race.

For Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) will retire in 2006 in keeping with his two-term limit-pledge. Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is leaning heavily toward a gubernatorial run in 2006, which would create an open-seat race to replace her.

No other GOPers look like retirement prospects at this point though Sens. Trent Lott (Miss.), Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Craig Thomas (Wyo.) have all been mentioned as potential departures.

For both sides, keeping retirements to a minimum is an absolute must if they expect to gain seats.

“The first recruitment battle is always securing commitments from incumbent Members to run,” said Democratic media consultant Anita Dunn, a longtime Senate operative who works for Squier, Knapp, Dunn. “If you look at the record for both parties over the last 10 years it is rare that incumbents lose.”

Since the 1996 cycle, 166 Senate races have featured an incumbent seeking re-election with only 16 defeated — 14 were ousted in the general election, while two were felled in primaries.

As for open seats, past history shows them to be much more volatile.

For evidence, one needs only look to last cycle when of the eight open seats, seven switched parties.

Only in Oklahoma, where former Rep. Tom Coburn (R) won the race to replace retiring Sen. Don Nickles (R), did a seat stay in the hands of the party who held it going into the election.

Senate Democrats’ inability to hold any of their five open seats was the key to an overall four-seat loss in 2004.

“It is always easier to re-elect an incumbent than to hold an open seat,” said Republican pollster Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies. “You would much rather have the incumbent run again.”

With the 2004 cycle as a backdrop, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Schumer have reminded their colleagues early and often about the damaging effects of retirements.

“Schumer has made it an ongoing point with the Caucus,” said a senior Democratic Senate leadership aide. “The easiest way to keep a Senate seat is through incumbency.”

One Democratic strategist contacted for this story acknowledged that the effects of last cycle’s losses could have some impact on the go/no-go decisions of Senators up in 2006, but ultimately each Member will make his or her own choice.

“This is a decision that Senators make about what they are going to do with the next six years of their lives,” the source said.

That kind of time commitment carries special significance this cycle as seven of the 18 Democrats (including Jeffords) up for re-election will be 70 or older in November 2006.

Given the age factor, the possibility remains that one or even several of the Senators who have said they plan to run again in 2006 will reconsider as the election year draws closer and events intervene.

Witness then-Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) who appeared to be cruising to a third term in 2004 when he was beset by allegations of wrongdoing in relation to the resignation of a top aide.

Campbell abruptly reversed course, announcing his retirement from the Senate in early March and setting off a wild open-seat scramble ultimately won by Ken Salazar (D) — the only Democratic pickup in the 2004 cycle.

With only two Senators officially retiring as of this writing, the 2006 cycle seems unlikely to match the eight Members who vacated the body by choice in 2004.

It seems more likely to resemble the 2002 cycle when four Republicans and a single Democrat retired, or the 2000 cycle, when that ratio was reversed.

The record for Senate retirements came in 1996, when 13 incumbents passed on re-election bids, eight Democrats and five Republicans.

The mass departures were a combination of age (four of the retirees were 70 or older) and the fear of a continued anti-incumbent mood lingering in the wake of the Republican sweep of 1994.

Surprisingly, that cycle saw relatively little turnover, as Republicans won three open seats to one for Democrats, extending the GOP majority to 55 to 45.

Strategists on both sides of the partisan divide point to Hutchison on the Republican side and Sarbanes among Democrats as the two most likely retirees who have yet to make their intentions known.

Hutchison continues to mull a primary challenge to Gov. Rick Perry (R) and most state and national GOP observers are convinced she will take the plunge.

Republicans would immediately be favored in an open-seat scenario with Rep. Henry Bonilla and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst seen as the party’s two strongest candidates.

In Maryland, Sarbanes is keeping his party guessing as to what his next move will be.

Polling shows him in strong shape should he decide to run for a seventh term, and Sarbanes has apparently been interviewing media consultants of late, a positive sign for Democrats.

But, at 73 on Election Day 2006, Sarbanes may decide to end his time in the Senate, a choice that would create chaos among the state’s Democrats.

Former Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume (Md.) has already signaled an interest in running and the field could also include Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Reps. Albert Wynn, Benjamin Cardin and Chris Van Hollen.

Unless Republicans can convince Gov. Bob Ehrlich or Lt. Gov. Michael Steele to run they would be hard-pressed to be competitive in this Democratic-leaning state.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.