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Barney Frank’s exit signals growing Democratic retirements, but not yet an avalanche

at 12:47 PM ET, 11/28/2011

House Democrats are starting to head for the exits, but it’s not quite panic time for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In recent days, both Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas) have announced they won’tseek re-election in 2012. Their declarations bring the number of Democrats not seeking another term next year to 17, which has Republicans arguing that Democratic members don’t believe they can retake the House majority next year.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, participates in a committee hearing on in March. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

But eight of those 17 Democrats are actually seeking other office. In other words, only nine Democrats are calling it quits outright.

While that number is greater than the amount of Democrats who have typically announced their retirements at other points in past election cycles, it’s still far less than the exodus that generally occurs after a party loses House control. So when it comes to whether this is a big problem for Democrats recapturing the House majority in 2012, the jury is very much out.

Looking ahead, though, the number of Democratic retirements in the next couple months will be a key indicator of whether the rank-and-file truly believe the majority is attainable. As President Obama’s numbers continue to languish and the economy struggle, some may see the goal slipping away.

In the 2008 cycle, after Democrats re-took the House, 23 Republicans retired without seeking higher office, including 14 by late November of the off-year. Fewer Democrats have announced their retirements at this same time in the 2012 cycle and Republicans recaptured the House in 2010.

And in the 1996 cycle, after Republicans re-took the House, 20 Democrats headed for the exits without running for another job.

But at the same time, Democrats haven’t seen their members retire in these numbers in quite a while. Over each of the last five election cycles, the number of Democrats retiring outright by this point in the cycle has never been more than one or two. So the fact that Democrats lost the majority in 2010 is definitely having an effect on retention.

It’s also worth noting that the total number of Democratic open seats — 17 — is creeping up on the numbers Republicans posted after 2006 and Democrats showed after 1994. So while many of the Democratic retirees are seeking higher office — a suggestion that they aren’t disheartened by the electoral environment — those are still open seats that Democrats will have to defend.

Republicans have a good chance of taking the seats held by retiring Reps. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) and Mike Ross (D-Ark.) and Senate candidate Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.). They also have a fighting chance at capturing some of the seats held by Senate candidates Reps. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and retiring Reps. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) and Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.).

But all the other open seats are very likely to remain in Democratic hands, meaning Republicans haven’t seen a huge surge in pick-up opportunities thanks to the retirements.

Republicans, though, argue that retirements like Franks’s might cause other Democrats to think twice about staying on Capitol Hill. Frank, as ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, would be in line to regain his chairmanship if Democrats retake the House in 2010.

So if Frank doesn’t think that possibility is good enough to stick around for, what about the rank-and-file member who doesn’t really want to be in the minority?

Republicans had this problem in 2007. Leadership tried to convince members to seek re-election and that the majority wasn’t too far away, but many didn’t believe them. The GOP wound up having to defend more than a dozen competitive open seats that year.

Democrats aren’t close to being in that situation yet, as most of their retirees still hail from safe seats (indeed, there are pretty few incumbent Democrats left in competitive districts), but the more that number grows, the more of a nuisance retirements become and the more they may snowball.

The DCCC has pushed many of these members to make a decision early — and those in the toughest districts did so, at least so far — which gave their party a chance to recruit a replacement candidate early. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be more to come. House members guard their own prerogatives pretty closely, and not all of them will listen to their leaders when they tell them to decide early.

And the more Democrats retire, the more it looks like rank-and-file members don’t believe the DCCC’s insistence that they can win back the House majority next year.

Keep an eye on it.

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