House Democrats lose fourth member to retirement

Rep. Bart Gordon would have faced a tough reelection battle.
Rep. Bart Gordon would have faced a tough reelection battle. (Susan Walsh/associated Press)
By Chris Cillizza and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

House Democrats got a jolt Monday when a fourth lawmaker in a matter of weeks announced his retirement, leaving party officials and strategists fearful that they represent the leading edge of a wave of departures that could leave the Democrats vulnerable to significant losses in the 2010 midterm elections.

The most recent retirement came when Rep. Bart Gordon (Tenn.) decided not to seek a 14th term. While Gordon emphasized his desire to pursue other opportunities after 25 years in the House, party insiders acknowledged that he was swayed by the prospect of a highly competitive contest next November.

Gordon joins Reps. Dennis Moore (Kan.), John Tanner (Tenn.) and Brian Baird (Wash.) as Democratic members in swing districts who have announced their retirements in the past two weeks. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried both Tennessee seats in the 2008 presidential election while narrowly losing in the Washington and Kansas districts. President George W. Bush carried all four of the seats in his 2004 reelection bid.

"Four retirements in and of themselves isn't enough to create a big problem," said Martin Frost, a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "If there were to be 10 or 15 retirements like this, that is a problem for the DCCC."

Privately, Democratic strategists were more pessimistic about the potential implications of Gordon's announcement. "Until this point, this was manageable and reasonable," said one strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. "This is serious."

The national political environment has shifted significantly since President Obama was elected 13 months ago. Republican are now unified in opposition to the administration's policies and more energized than at any time since Bush's reelection in 2004. At the same time, many of the independent voters who backed the Democrats in their victories of 2006 and 2008 appear to have soured on the party, if this year's gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia are any guide.

What most concerns Democrats is that the latest round of retirements will prompt other longtime lawmakers in competitive districts to rethink their reelection plans, Frost said. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, acknowledged that "some more" Democratic retirements will be announced before the end of the year, but that the number will be "nothing on the scale of 1994, when you had 28 Democratic open seats" and the party lost control of the House.

Even so, a rash of retirements by Democrats in swing districts would present a real problem for party leaders. Elections in districts without an incumbent running generally switch parties at much higher percentages than those with a reelection seeker. With Gordon, Democrats are now defending 11 open seats, seven of which are considered genuinely competitive. House Republican retirements stand at 12, with four of those likely to be targeted by the two national parties.

Joe Gaylord, who was chief strategist for former House speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1994 cycle, said Democratic retirements accelerated in 1994, compared with their pace in 1993, and he predicted the same could happen this time. "It got collectively worse as they moved along," he said.

Two other factors may influence the pace of retirements. One is history: The president's party often loses a significant number of House seats in the first midterm election of his time in office. In 1994, the year of President Bill Clinton's first midterm election, Democrats lost 54 seats and with them control of the House. Twelve years earlier, in the first midterm contest of Ronald Reagan's presidency, House Republicans lost 26 seats.

The one exception to that pattern came in 2002, when House Republicans netted eight seats, an anomaly largely credited to the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the national psyche.

A second factor is that, after gaining a total of 55 seats in 2006 and 2008, Democrats may have reached their high-water mark in the House. During that stretch, they experienced only 18 retirements and did not surrender a single open seat to Republicans, a pattern likely to be broken next year. House Republicans, in contrast, have had 50 retirements from their ranks over the past four years and lost 16 of those seats.

Gordon's retirement in particular came as a psychological blow to Democrats. Party strategists who pay close attention to House races anticipate that a number of longtime House members, particularly those in swing districts or areas of traditional Republican strength, will poll their districts early next year and decide after that whether to seek reelection.

Among the names mentioned as potential retirements if the political environment does not improve are Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (S.C.), Vic Snyder and Marion Berry (Ark.), and Rep. Chet Edwards (Tex.).

"Democrats are beginning to see the writing on the wall, and instead of choosing to fight in a difficult political environment, they are taking a pass and opting for retirement," said Pete Sessions (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Van Hollen insisted that he, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) have been meeting with on-the-fence members for months to try to assuage their doubts. "Our goal is to make sure that nobody decides to retire because of their election prospects," he said.

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