Wednesday, January 06, 2010

2010 Congressional retirements: good news for whom?

If you waste as much of your life as I do reading and listening to American political news, you've surely heard that the number of retirements from Congress for the 2010 cycle are picking up. The elections are nine months away, and January is typically the most popular month to announce one's retirement from Congress. So far, of the 36 (possibly 37, depending on how the Texas gubernatorial primary turns out in March) seats up in November, ten senators have announced their retirements (including Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) and Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) who both announced they won't run again yesterday.) 24 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives have also thus far announced their retirements.

You hear a lot of talk about how this is bad news for Democrats. There's some logic to this—the party that controls the White House usually loses seats in Congress during the midterms, especially during the incumbent party's first term in office. These losses are not guaranteed, and most speculators who believe the Democrats will lose seats don't think they'll lose enough so that control of either chamber will pass to the Republicans again.

As a student of history, I say that the notion that history repeats itself is more of a warning than it is a fact. Though more bets are landing on some Republican gains in 2010, I'm not convinced it's going to happen. All things being equal, the Republicans might see a fair outcome in this year's midterms. But, as they say in the finance industry, past performance is not a guarantee of future results. What could go wrong for the Republicans, and why shouldn't they assume they've got nothing ahead but blue—er, sorry—red skies?

The numbers. It's almost certainly true that we're not done hearing about retirements yet, but so far, the Republicans are leading the Democrats in sheer numbers of retirements. Six Republican senators have announced their retirements while four Democratic senators have; fourteen Republican representatives have announced their retirements while ten Democratic representatives have. All things being equal, this makes for a tougher situation for the Republicans. But when you consider that the Democrats already outnumber the Republicans in both houses, it's even tougher still.

On the other hand, if you look at each of these races individually, at least in the House, a lot of them are not competitive. The vacancies of these incumbents likely points to a couple of pickups on the part of each party, thus nullifying any advantage they might get. The Democrats will probably lose control of Kansas's 3rd district and Louisiana's 3rd district, while the Republicans will probably lose control of Delaware's at-large district and Pennsylvania's 6th district, for example. There are competitive races in the House this year, but most of them involve incumbents' seats, like Walt Minnick (D-Idaho) and Anh Cao (R-Louisiana).

The Senate is a little different. Most of the ten open seats are likely to be competitive. In fact, at this point there are only three open Senate seats that we can safely write off as uncompetitive at this point: Kansas, where Sam Brownback's seat will stay Republican; Connecticut, where Chris Dodd's retirement has turned his seat from a tossup to a safe hold for the Democrats; and North Dakota, where Byron Dorgan's retirement has opened the door for a safe pickup by Republican Governor Joe Hoeven. The other seven, at this point, are still up in the air, and there are some incumbents who might (and some who will) face tough elections this year.

Money. So, all things being equal, the numbers point to moderate Republican gains this year. But, as I keep saying, all things are not equal. Republican fundraising has been low this year. Many big donors are disheartened that they can't get much done with a minority party, and the Republican base has shrunk. Funding reëlection efforts costs money, and while having fewer seats to defend does make things somewhat easier for them, their dwindling cash reserves do put them in a tight spot. Mounting takeovers of seats takes money, too, so the reality is that the cash that the Republicans need to do this might simply not be there.

Tea parties. As I said: the Republican base has shrunk, but there's no denying that its enthusiasm has not. While many of the Tea Party activists would be loathe to call themselves Republicans, well... they sure aren't Democrats. If the Tea Partiers vote at all this year, they're going to vote Republican if they want to pick up a seat; or, if they just want to make a point, with the Libertarian or Constitution parties. The Tea Party activists are arguably good news for the Republicans, but that good news is not a sure thing. The Tea Party movement is not a unified one, and its factions don't all agree on whether or not they should align themselves with the Republican party. Republican leaders have made clear overtures to them, but it's not clear they'll be able to count on most of them to vote Republican, or to vote at all.

The Tea Partiers could well backfire on the Republicans, too. For one, Tea Parties are festivals of anti-incumbent anger—not necessarily a desirable trait for the Republican party, which would like to oust Democratic incumbents, but also wants to protect its own incumbents. Possibly worse, the Tea Partiers might demonstrate plenty of enthusiasm, but enthusiasm for candidates who are not electable. Consider the Tea Party activism that took down DeDe Scozzafava in upstate New York. This was a district that should have been easy for the Republicans to retain, but instead the Tea Partiers rallied around an unelectable candidate, handing this House seat over to the Democrats for the first time since the 19th century. If the Tea Party activists get involved in primaries, they could potentially knock out moderate and moderate-seeming Republicans in favor of candidates that moderate Republican voters (and independents and Democrats) might not find palatable, which would cause headaches for an already bruised Republican party.

Also the style of Tea Party politics could put voters off. Your more moderate and mild-mannered voters are put off by the brash signs you see at Tea Party rallies, shrilly decrying socialism and gay marriage and the graduated income tax and the United Nations as if 50% of the American public were card-carrying members of the John Birch Society. It's not so much that many voters don't agree with the Tea Partiers' stances (they don't,) but incoherent bellowing about a secret socialist plot in the Oval Office is more likely than not going to turn them off.

Election Day is November 2—about ten months off. Two weeks is a long time in politics; ten months is an eternity. So who can say what the landscape is going to look like when voters head to the polls? This far ahead, it's rash to predict whether one party's going to come out ahead in the upcoming elections or the other will. But I think from the way things look, the Republicans have many more obstacles to overcome than do the Democrats. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to predict the outcome, I'd say that at this point it looks like the Republicans might gain a couple seats in the Senate and that we won't see more than a total gain of three or four House seats for one party or the other. The only problem that could hurt the Democrats in 2010 is a lack of enthusiasm among voters, which is a real concern. The Republicans could really benefit from the likely Democratic midterm diffidence, but that might not happen if they don't get over their problems of their own.

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