Retirements From House Adding Up

Most Departures Among Republicans, Giving Democrats a Chance to Pad Their Ranks

Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), a 10-term House veteran and senior member on the House Appropriations Committee, announced his retirement Jan. 24.
Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), a 10-term House veteran and senior member on the House Appropriations Committee, announced his retirement Jan. 24. (By Charles Wainwright -- Bloomberg News)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008; Page A05

Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.) spent last year aggressively fundraising and campaigning for what promised to be a very close election in his toss-up district in Syracuse. A 10-term House veteran and senior member on the coveted House Appropriations Committee, Walsh raised more than $780,000, almost triple his 2005 total.

But even if Walsh were to win again, he would almost certainly face another term in the minority, generally a guarantee that he would be frustrated trying to accomplish his agenda. Ten days ago, he announced his retirement, deciding that another grueling race was not worth it.

Walsh joined 27 GOP colleagues -- five in the past week -- who have decided to step down, a major blow for a minority party desperately trying to keep Democrats from padding their majority in the House this year.

"It is no question we have a major challenge. The last week has been difficult," said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "They can stretch the battlefield. They can go to a lot of different places."

Only six Democrats are leaving, all from safe districts. To make matters worse for the Republicans, the Democrats' campaign committee filed year-end reports last week showing, for the first time in any political observer's memory, that it had raised more money than its GOP counterpart last year.

The financial and numerical disparity leaves House Republicans with tough choices that they have not faced since the early 1990s. In past years, the NRCC, through advertising campaigns, could afford to shore up incumbents while it poured millions of dollars into open-seat races, boosting Republican challengers against entrenched Democratic incumbents.

Not this year.

"They cannot carry the fight to Democrats," said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of an independent political handicapping newsletter. "You have the entire game being played on one side of the field."

After a 12-year reign in the majority, Republicans began 2007 expecting to battle about 60 House Democrats in districts that President Bush won in 2004. Republicans held slim hopes of reclaiming the majority.

Instead, they watched their chances shrink as the wave of retirements grew. Their predicament was best exemplified by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, the Northern Virginia Republican who announced Wednesday that he will step down at the end of this year.

Davis's district has grown increasingly suburban and Democratic, but as long as he stayed in office, Republicans had a fighting chance to retain it. Upon news of Davis's departure, the Cook Political Report, an independent newsletter, officially moved Virginia's 11th District from a "solid R" ranking to a "toss-up."

The Davis district is one of 10 Republican "toss-ups," Cook indicated, all the result of retiring veteran incumbents who are abandoning swing districts.

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