3 House retirements spur debate on whether Republicans are losing momentum

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (Fla.) is the latest Republican to announce retirement from the House. The GOP has to defend 18 open seats this fall, and Democrats have 13 to protect.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (Fla.) is the latest Republican to announce retirement from the House. The GOP has to defend 18 open seats this fall, and Democrats have 13 to protect. (Alan Diaz/associated Press)
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By Chris Cillizza and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010

A trio of House Republican retirement announcements over the past 10 days have sparked a debate between the leaders of the two major parties over whether the GOP is losing momentum in its quest to score major gains at the ballot box this fall.

With the three latest lawmakers choosing not to seek reelection in November, Republicans will have to defend 18 open seats and Democrats 14. The raw numbers contradict the conventional wisdom that Democrats would head for the sidelines after GOP Sen. Scott Brown's special election victory Jan. 19 in Massachusetts.

GOP strategists are brushing aside the retirement gap, saying that many of their House members see an improving political environment and are jumping ship to run for statewide office, and that other retirements are occuring in mostly conservative terrain that will be easy to defend. Democrats counter that the GOP retirements are a sign that most rank-and-file Republicans do not believe they will recapture the majority anytime soon.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Tex.) said that "not all retirements are created equal," adding that Democratic retirements are coming in far less friendly territory for the majority. "The fact of the matter is Democrats in swing districts are retiring because they know what November has in store for them," Sessions said.

"The fact that you have 10 percent of House Republicans retiring suggests they don't believe their own hype about taking back the House," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "If that was a realistic prospect, people would be running for office, not from it."

Leaving the House

On Thursday, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) became the latest casualty, announcing that he would not seek a 10th term in his Miami area seat. Less than 24 hours earlier, Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.) had decided not to run again, and, late last month, Rep. Steve Buyer (Ind.) also called it quits. (Technically, Democrats could make the argument that there have been 19 GOP retirements because Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) is moving into his brother's neighboring district and running for that seat. That leaves the southwestern Florida district, which is viewed as a more ripe target for Democrats.)

At this early stage of the campaign season, independent political handicappers Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg predict Democratic losses of at least 20 seats, putting Republicans halfway to the 40 they need to take back the majority. The ripest targets are often seats left behind by incumbents, and a look at the 31 open seats does suggest that Democrats are likely to be harder hit by the retirements.

Of the 14 Democratic open seats, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)carried five in the 2008 race for the White House and lost one -- Kansas's 3rd District -- narrowly. Of the 18 Republican-held seats, President Obama won two and came close in the districts held by Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart around Miami.

Seeking higher office

Two-thirds of the GOP retirees, 12, are running for higher office, a sign, party strategists say, that Republicans view their party as ascendant and are leaping at opportunities.

In addition, the most recent retirees -- Buyer, Diaz-Balart, Ehlers -- are veterans whose upward mobility is limited in the House. Buyer, who faces ethics questions from his home-state media about a foundation he operates, is at the end of his term limit as the top Republican on the Veterans' Affairs Committee. Ehlers recently gave up his top post on the House Administration Committee. Lincoln Diaz-Balart is a senior member of the powerful Rules Committee, which governs much of the business of the House, but that position is selected by Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who has two close allies on that panel who are viewed as more likely to become chairman if Republicans reclaim the majority.

Watching every seat

Still, Republicans would rather not have to deal with open seats. Modern political history suggests that open seats are far more likely to switch parties than those in which the incumbent is running for reelection -- meaning that any vacant seat has at least the potential to become competitive.

"In this environment, every open seat has to be watched, and there will be GOP open seats where the NRCC will have to spend money they wouldn't have had to if the incumbent had run for reelection," said Carl Forti, a Republican consultant and former communications director for the House GOP's campaign arm. "This will take away from what they have to spend on offensive opportunities."

Although Republicans are on a winning streak after Brown's victory and the seizure of the New Jersey and Virginia governors' offices in November, the party continues to face a deficit when compared with Democratic finances. At the end of January, the NRCC had $4.1 million in the bank after posting more than $4.5 million raised last month. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, by contrast, had $16.7 million on hand at the end of 2009. The DCCC has not released its January figures.

In addition, some Republican primaries have turned bitter, with the burgeoning tea party movement viewing these open seats as a chance to flex its muscle against candidates whom it considers establishment-backed. It's unclear whether such outsider conservatives will emerge in the South Florida primaries, but the tea party allies have adopted former Florida state House speaker Marco Rubio as a favorite son in his insurgent Senate primary against Gov. Charlie Crist (Fla.).

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