Have House GOP Retirement Woes Run Their Course?

by Stuart Rothenberg April 15, 2009 · 12:05 AM EDT

House retirements are running a bit ahead of schedule this cycle, at least compared with where they stood in 2005 and 2007. And if they even approach the same numbers as in the past two election cycles, retirements could play a significant part in the eventual 2010 House battleground.

Roll Call’s Casualty List now shows a dozen House Members leaving their House seats to run for another office next year. In June 2007, the Casualty List identified four House Members who were not seeking re-election — one of whom, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), eventually changed his mind and ran for re-election. Two years earlier, in April 2005, Roll Call’s list stood at only six House Members not running again.

House Democrats have benefited greatly from retirements of late. In each of the past five cycles, more Republican incumbents than Democratic incumbents have decided against running for re-election.

There were 26 GOP retirements in 2008 compared with only six Democratic ones. Two years earlier, 10 Democrats and 18 Republicans opted not to seek re-election to their House seats, and in 2004, 12 Democrats and 17 Republicans called it quits, either retiring or running for a different office.

Republican retirements in the House numbered 22 in 2002 and 23 in 2000, while only 13 Democrats retired in 2002 and a mere eight Democrats walked away from their seats in 2000.

The last time more Democrats than Republicans retired was in 1998, when 17 Democrats and 16 Republicans did not seek re-election.

None of these calculations includes Members who were defeated in the primary, who resigned their seats in midterm or who died while in office. And retirements certainly are not synonymous with open seats, some of which were created by reapportionment and redistricting after the 2000 Census.

Still, the retirement numbers make it clear that Republicans have lost far more veteran officeholders during the past decade and have had to defend those open seats. Over the past five elections, 106 Republican House Members have not sought re- election, while only 49 Democrats have walked away from their seats — a significant difference.

Sometimes, of course, it’s easier for a party to defend an open seat than to have a damaged incumbent in the race. Not all retirements are unwelcome by the incumbent’s party. And yet, retirements generally create problems for the incumbent party, often leading to expensive and potentially divisive primaries or exposing a district that has changed its partisan bent but continued to reelect its incumbent.

Given the past three cycles’ totals — 61 GOP retirements compared with only 28 Democratic retirements — it would be extraordinary if Democrats were to have another huge advantage in open seats next year. But the appeal of nonfederal statewide races this cycle, combined with the ambitiousness of the Obama agenda and the inability of the House GOP to do anything to stop it, could lead still more Republicans to run for the exits, giving Democrats more interesting open-seat opportunities.

Obviously, open seats both reflect the nature of the political environment and contribute to that environment.

Republican incumbents saw the writing on the wall last cycle, and many of them preferred to call it quits rather than struggle to hold their seats, knowing that the party would remain in the minority, which, in the House, often means irrelevancy.

The retirements added to the sense of gloom and doom on the Republican side, which, in turn, encouraged others to retire. The large number of GOP open seats then gave Democrats plenty of good opportunities for takeovers, and take over they did.

Indeed, Democratic insiders aren’t shy in acknowledging that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had a “retirement strategy” last cycle, and one that the party is certain to follow again this cycle.

The strategy was and remains simple: Target Republican incumbents whom the DCCC wants to retire and “encourage” them to retire. That means firing a shot across the bow. We try to tell them, “If you run again, it’s going to be a tough race,” is the way one Democratic operative put it.

Democrats argue that at least two veteran GOP Congressmen who called it quits last time, Reps. Jim Saxton (N.J.) and Ralph Regula (Ohio), got the message.

This cycle, Democratic operatives are hoping that the same tactics will work on Republican veterans such as Reps. Mike Castle (Del.), 69, Bill Young (Fla.), 78, Henry Brown (S.C.), 73, Don Manzullo (Ill.), 65, and Roscoe Bartlett (Md.), 82.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that Democrats have talked about Castle and Young retiring, and since Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried Bartlett’s district by 18 points, a Democrat wouldn’t be likely to win the seat even if it becomes open.

So far, only one young House Republican has announced that he is giving up his seat to seek other office, 34-year-old Rep. Adam Putnam (Fla.). But a number of Republicans in their 40s and 50s, who might have stayed in the House if the GOP were still in control — including Reps. Gresham Barrett (S.C.), 48, Zach Wamp (Tenn.), 51, Jim Gerlach (Pa.), 54, and Pete Hoekstra (Mich.), 55 — have either announced for statewide office or opened an exploratory committee.

Democratic insiders insist that Putnam’s district, which went very narrowly for McCain in the presidential contest, could be in play.

“The district has better Democratic performance than people assume. The right candidate could make the race very competitive,” one Democratic strategist argued.

Democratic strategists will be eyeing a handful of other GOP Members to see whether their seats will open up. The list includes Reps. Mark Kirk (Ill.), Mary Bono Mack (Calif.), Judy Biggert (Ill.), Dave Reichert (Wash.), John Shadegg (Ariz.) and Elton Gallegly (Calif.).

“Democrats have been very clear about their intentions to try to force incumbent Republicans into retirement. In some cases they have been successful, but now we are looking to replicate that success,” one Republican operative told me recently.

Three Democrats have already taken steps to run for higher office — Reps. Paul Hodes (N.H.), Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii) and Tim Ryan (Ohio) — and others are mentioned as possibly interested.

Republicans are keeping their eyes on Peter DeFazio (Ore.), Loretta Sanchez (Calif.), Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.), Charlie Melancon (La.) and a handful of Democratic Representatives from the Philadelphia suburbs, who might look at the Senate race with renewed interest now that Sen. Arlen Specter (R) has drawn a serious primary challenger.

Republican operatives are making every effort to recruit strong challengers to these Democratic incumbents, hoping to push some of them toward other contests.

GOP insiders cite their efforts to encourage California Assemblyman Van Tran to challenge Sanchez and Springfield Mayor Sid Leiken into a race against DeFazio as evidence that they are trying to broaden the playing field and that they have adopted a new strategy. Both Republicans are still considering their options.

National GOP strategists are also pleased that Honolulu City Councilmember Charles Djou has jumped into the Hawaii race to succeed Abercrombie, who holds a seat they haven’t seriously contested since 1996.

“Last cycle, many Republicans thought that we could simply conquer old territory to win back the majority. Now, most people realize that we need to create new opportunities,” said one Republican observer, echoing what Democratic strategists said in 2006 and 2008.

Both parties will make every effort to get their incumbents to run again, thereby minimizing the number of open seats each must defend. But given recent trends, with retirements averaging in the low 30s over the past six cycles, another 20 retirements wouldn’t be unusual.