By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
A spate of retirement announcements by Senate Republicans this year have further complicated attempts by GOP strategists to begin rebuilding a party devastated by across-the-board losses in recent elections.
The latest departure news came yesterday, when Sen. George V. Voinovich of Ohio said he has decided not to seek a third term in 2010, citing a desire to "step back and spend the rest of our time with our children and grandchildren." Voinovich joins Republican Sens. Sam Brownback (Kan.), Christopher S. Bond (Mo.) and Mel Martinez (Fla.) on the sidelines heading into the 2010 election. So far this year, no Democrats have announced plans to retire after the current Senate term.
The rapid pace of Republican retirement announcements has dispirited many in the party who thought the 2008 election, in which the party lost seven or eight seats (depending on the outcome of the Minnesota contest), marked the GOP's nadir.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the No. 3 Republican leader, said the decisions by Voinovich, Martinez and Bond hurt the party both politically and legislatively. "We're losing three of our best players," said Alexander, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.
"It makes an already tough situation even worse," added Fred Davis, a Republican consultant who spearheaded advertising strategy for Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the 2008 presidential race.
Several factors have contributed to the large number of looming retirements. Age and length of service have played a role (Voinovich will be 74 on Election Day 2010, and Bond has spent the past three decades in public office), but the common element in each decision appears to be the difficult path facing Republicans if they hope to regain the majority.
Republicans control only 41 Senate seats and have 20 incumbents up for reelection in 2010, compared with 17 for the Democrats.
Former senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) likened his ex-colleagues' situation to a car ride. "The chairman [of a committee] -- especially with 58 to 59 in the voting caucus -- drives the car and chooses the destination," he said. "The ranking [minority member] rides shotgun on a good day. On a bad day, he or she is in a carpool with the chairman's staff."
Regardless of the reasoning behind each senator's decision, Republican operatives are now confronted with a series of open-seat races in swing states where Democrats have made strides in recent years.
President-elect Barack Obama carried both Florida and Ohio last fall and came close to winning Missouri. In Kansas, a Republican stronghold, popular Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is weighing a Senate bid, in which she would be the front-runner.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Tex.) pointed out that Republican senators in such states as Ohio and Missouri were far from sure to win reelection had they decided to run.
"The reality is that 2010 was always going to be a very competitive environment for Republicans, regardless of the names on the ballot," Cornyn said. "Republicans are taking nothing for granted this election cycle."
Others in the GOP pointed out that the retirements -- coupled with defeats at the ballot box in 2006 and 2008 -- have created opportunities for a younger generation of leaders to step in and reshape the party.
Former congressman Rob Portman, an almost-certain candidate for the Voinovich vacancy in Ohio, has long been seen as a rising Republican star but had not had an obvious statewide opportunity until now. Ditto Marco Rubio, the young, Cuban former speaker of the Florida House who is expected to announce his candidacy for Martinez's open seat in the coming days.
"A true shift is underway," said Alex Vogel, a GOP lobbyist who closely follows Senate races. He added that protecting an open seat is always a challenge but "when you can recruit people like Rob Portman, that's a great challenge to have."
Not so fast, responded Jim Jordan, a former executive director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who ran the group's independent expenditure effort in 2008.
Jordan called the recent Republican retirements a "morale killer, a momentum killer, and a massive recruitment and fundraising problem," adding that "I'll bet 10 to 1 that Voinovich won't be the last" GOP senator to announce plans to retire.
Staff writers Paul Kane and Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.