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Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd's retirement improves Democrats' chances for seat

By Chris Cillizza and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 7, 2010; A06

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) announced his retirement from Congress on Wednesday, bringing an end to an illustrious political career and, in so doing, bolstering his party's chances of holding his seat.

As he told reporters of his decision, surrounded by his family in front of his home in East Haddam, Conn., a clearly emotional Dodd reflected on his Christmas Eve vote for health-care legislation and a trip, just an hour later, to the grave site of his closest friend in the Senate, Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a longtime proponent of reform. He concluded: "The work to make our nation a more perfect union began long before I was elected to the Senate, and it will go on long after I am gone."

Recent polls showed Dodd badly trailing two lesser-known Republican opponents, but he said his vulnerability at the ballot box was not the primary motivation for his decision. "Any certain prediction about an election victory or defeat nearly a year from now would be absurd," he said.

Still, it had become clear in recent months that the five-term senator faced at best an uncertain path to reelection. In the final two months of 2009, there had been a quiet but steady drumbeat from the Democratic establishment that Dodd's time had passed and that, for the good of the party, he should step aside rather than pursue a race that might not be winnable.

Any public talk of retirement, though, had been silenced by his stature in the party. In addition to his 30 years in the Senate and six in the House, Dodd, 65, served as Democratic National Committee chairman from 1995 to 1997. President Obama and Vice President Biden had campaigned and raised money for Dodd in recent months, and those close to the senator said the White House had done nothing, even privately, to encourage him to step aside.

"While his work in the Senate is not yet finished, his leadership in that institution will be missed," Obama said Wednesday.

Senate Democrats moved quickly to firm up their chances of keeping Dodd's seat, with state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announcing that he will enter the race. Blumenthal, who has been Connecticut's attorney general since 1990, has long coveted a Senate seat and had made clear his intentions to challenge Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I) in 2012.

Blumenthal is certain to have the support of the White House as well as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the primary, making it nearly impossible for any other candidate to seek the nomination. And recent polling has suggested that he would be a strong favorite to win in November.

Republicans insisted that Dodd's retirement would not remove the seat from their target list, although they acknowledged privately that they would have preferred to run against the incumbent. The front-runners for the GOP nod, former U.S. representative Rob Simmons and Linda McMahon, former chief executive of World Wresting Entertainment, both said Wednesday that they will stay in the race, and Simmons went as far as to send out a fundraising e-mail proclaiming: "National Democrats are in chaos."

Dodd's announcement signaled the coming conclusion of a political career full of notable legislative and political accomplishments.

Following in his father's footsteps, Dodd was elected to the U.S. House in 1974 and to the Senate six years later. By the early 1990s, he had set his sights on Senate leadership. He ran for Democratic leader after the 1994 elections but lost in a close race to Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.). Dodd was then asked by President Bill Clinton to be chairman of the DNC, overseeing Clinton's reelection campaign in 1996.

Dodd had long harbored a dream to run for president, and in January 2007 he announced his candidacy. From the start, the bid had a quixotic feel, as he was overshadowed by the better-known and better-funded Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and former senator John Edwards.

He decided to focus so heavily on the Iowa caucuses that he uprooted his family and moved them to Iowa in the fall of 2007, a few months before that crucial early vote. That was seen by many Connecticut voters as a betrayal, and it prompted questions back home about Dodd's loyalties.

Dodd dropped out of the presidential race after failing to win a single delegate in Iowa.

His biggest political crisis came six months later, in July 2008, as he ushered massive mortgage-modification legislation into law. The package was designed to help prevent up to 400,000 foreclosures and to provide Treasury the authority to prop up faltering giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It was soon revealed that Dodd was a beneficiary of a discounted mortgage program for VIPs offered by Countrywide Financial, the provider of the bulk of subprime mortgages that led to Fannie and Freddie's troubles.

The Senate ethics committee spent a year investigating Dodd's personal finances -- a probe that had echoes of the late 1960s investigation of his father, the late senator Thomas J. Dodd. Last year's ethics probe contributed to a freefall in Dodd's approval ratings at home. However, unlike his father -- who was censured by the Senate and lost his 1970 reelection campaign -- Dodd was cleared by the ethics panel last August, with the committee saying his Countrywide mortgage was similar to thousands of other loans offered to the company's clients.

In the past 18 months, as Dodd said in his announcement, he wrote or co-sponsored bills that rewrote mortgage rules; authorized the Wall Street bailout and key portions of the stimulus package; expanded consumer protections involving credit cards; and worked to expand health-care insurance coverage. Much of this work was done through his chairmanship of the Senate banking committee, but he also held powerful posts on the health and Foreign Relations committees.

But each major piece of legislation also brought Dodd criticism that he had not expected. The financial bailout was one of the most unpopular measures passed in recent memory, and voters complained that the mortgage bill had been delayed by his presidential campaign.

"I'm very proud of the job I've done and the results delivered," Dodd said. "But none of us is irreplaceable. None of us are indispensable. And those who think otherwise are dangerous."

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