GOP retirements in House may affect party's gains in November

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 5, 2010

While the recent political chatter in Washington has focused on Democrats retiring from Congress, Republicans are leaving the House in greater numbers, a trend that could blunt the party's momentum heading into the November midterm elections.

Rep. Henry E. Brown Jr. (S.C.) on Monday became the 14th Republican to announce that he will not run for reelection this year. Ten Democrats have said the same, including an attention-grabbing four in the past two months from swing and Republican-leaning districts.

A broad look at those seats suggests more parity, in terms of the two parties' opportunities and vulnerabilities, than conventional wisdom would suggest.

Each side has three seats won by the other party's presidential candidate in 2008. For Democrats, they are Louisiana's 3rd District and Tennessee's 6th and 8th districts; for Republicans, they are Delaware's at-large seat, Illinois's 10th District and Pennsylvania's 6th District.

Both parties face the prospect of tough campaigns in most of those open-seat districts. Nine of the Republican seats are in districts that GOP presidential candidate John McCain either lost or won with less than 60 percent of the vote in 2008. Democrats are defending seven seats that Barack Obama either lost or won with less than 60 percent.

The relative evenness of those numbers belies the perception in Washington that Democrats are rapidly losing altitude -- the switch of Rep. Parker Griffith (Ala.) to the GOP being a touchstone in that argument -- and are headed for major losses in November.

Retirements are only one factor in the midterms. Republicans still have several advantages and are nearly certain to score double-digit gains in November.

The largest factor in their favor is the weight of history. The first midterm elections for a new president are traditionally marked by significant House losses for his party.

This month will be critical in determining what direction the open-seat landscape is headed. Will a series of Democratic lawmakers -- fresh from conversations with their families and nervous about the political environment -- decide to step aside? (Keep an eye on such congressmen as Leonard L. Boswell of Iowa and Vic Snyder of Arkansas for an early indication of which way the wind is blowing.) And would those departures prompt even more lawmakers to consider leaving on their own terms?

If that happens, an election cycle that looked like a traditional midterm round for Democrats, with losses in the 20-seat range, could become one in which control of the House is up for grabs.

Expect Republicans to push hard on wavering Democratic lawmakers over the next month, letting them know what they are in for if they decide to seek reelection. But if the GOP's retirements continue, that pressure could ease.

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