No Rush to Retire

Posted April 20, 2005 at 5:04pm

When Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) announced Wednesday that he would retire in 2006, he became the fourth Senator to signal his intention to move on at the end of the 109th Congress.

Just two days earlier, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) announced that he would leave his 6th district seat — the seventh House Member to retire this cycle.

Those numbers hardly suggest that there is a long line of lawmakers looking to bail out of Congress when the 109th wraps up.

But the numbers do represent an ever-so-slightly higher number of House departures than there were at the same point in the 2004 cycle.

By April 2003, seven Members had said they were leaving. That list included then-Rep. Larry Combest (R-Texas), who stepped down in June 2003, then-Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.), who retired at the end of the 108th Congress, and five others who ran for higher office in 2004.

In all, 35 Members wound up voluntarily leaving the House at the end of 2004 through a combination of retirements, resignations and runs for other offices. Another nine were defeated for re-election.

What the current retirement rate portends for the rest of the cycle — when it comes to volume of departures or potentially close races — is anybody’s guess at this early stage.

“There’s not much out there yet that’s competitive,” said Carl Forti, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Early departure rates often aren’t harbingers of any sort of trend.

The Senators who have announced their retirements so far are Jeffords and Sens. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.). A fifth, Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), will leave if he is elected governor of the Garden State in November.

The Tennessee, Minnesota and New Jersey races should be close, and polls suggest the Maryland race is also likely to be a battle if Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is the GOP nominee. The Vermont race has yet to take shape, although Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders is considered very likely to run and, having been elected statewide eight times, would be a formidable contender.

By the same token, only one Senator had announced his retirement at this stage in the 2004 cycle: Zell Miller (D-Ga.).

But there wound up being eight Senate vacancies in 2004 — and many were forecast months before they became official. Six of the eight open-seat races were quite competitive, and in seven of the eight, party control changed hands.

By contrast, the five Senate vacancies (including Corzine’s seat) that everyone already knows about may end up being the sum total for this cycle.

“On our side, we don’t really expect to have any [additional] retirements,” said Brian Nick, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “The Senators we may have had some questions about, Sen. [Elizabeth] Dole [the chairwoman of the NRSC] has spoken to and is confident that they’re going to run.”

Phil Singer, Nick’s counterpart at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, agreed.

“I don’t think there’s anything on the horizon,” he said. “I guess Kay Bailey’s the one question mark.”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who is up for re-election next year, is still publicly contemplating a run for governor of the Lone Star State in 2006. She would be heavily favored to win re-election, but an open-seat Senate race in Texas could potentially be competitive.

The only other Republican Senator mentioned as a possible retiree is Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), but he is now seen as likely to run for re-election despite his fall in late 2002 from the Majority Leader’s post.

“I’m convinced he enjoys the new role he’s taken on,” Nick said.

Among Democrats, two octogenarian Senators — Daniel Akaka (Hawaii) and Robert Byrd (W.Va.) — are seeking re-election, but their status could theoretically change given their advanced ages.

Higher ambitions among House Members could produce exciting races in their districts.

Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) is already running for Senate in Minnesota. While his suburban Twin Cities district favors Republicans, Democrats have vowed to run vigorously there.

In the House districts of other possible Senate contenders — Rep. Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee and Reps. Benjamin Cardin and Chris Van Hollen in Maryland — the Democrats are likely to keep control of those seats.

But that isn’t necessarily the case in seats where House Members are contemplating running for governor in 2006.

Iowa’s 1st district, for example, where Rep. Jim Nussle (R) is preparing to run for governor, could be a swing district. And that is certainly true of Colorado’s 7th district, where Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) appears ready to announce a run for governor. (See story, page 3.)

But two House seats are expected to remain in the hands of the parties that control them now, even with House incumbents running for governor: Democratic Rep. Jim Davis’ 11th district in Florida, and Republican Rep. Butch Otter’s 1st district in Idaho.

Michigan’s 10th district, where Rep. Candice Miller (R) has not ruled out a run for governor, gave President Bush a 14-point victory over Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 presidential race. But before Miller was elected, the district was represented by one-time Minority Whip David Bonior (D), so it could see a competitive open-seat House race.