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Retirements are once again likely to be a major factor in the fight for the House and Senate next year. Incumbent re-election rates have skyrocketed since the mid-1990s, and unless a strong partisan wave appears next year, incumbents should do well again in 2004.

Just four House incumbents were defeated by challengers in the previous cycle, with redistricting the major factor in three of the cases. In the Senate, three incumbents were defeated, but one was an appointee.

So far, only Sens. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) and Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) and a handful of House Members who are self-term-limited or seeking higher office have indicated they are not running for re-election. But plenty of others are under the retirement microscope, and their decisions will play a big role in the fight for the House and Senate. Here’s a rundown of some key potential retirees:

Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.). Hollings may be the only Democrat in the Palmetto State who could win this Senate seat in 2004, which explains why party activists at Rep. James Clyburn’s Friday night fish fry in Columbia and at the state party convention implored him to run for a seventh full term. And, like some of his colleagues who have served for decades, the 81-year-old Senator may find it hard to simply walk away from politics.

But Hollings would be seeking re-election this time as a member of the minority, not as the chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. He can’t be sure of victory if he runs again, and some insiders say he dreads the idea of ending his career with a loss. Just as importantly, his wife apparently isn’t thrilled with the idea of her husband running again.

Hollings showed $911,000 in the bank at the end of March but raised only $6,000 in the first quarter of the year. That only adds credence to retirement rumors. South Carolina Democrats, however, believe that Hollings will run if Republicans start crowing too loudly about their ability to defeat him.

Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.). GOP insiders had been expecting Nickles not to seek re-election after he was passed over for his party’s top Senate leadership job. But the Oklahoma Republican has already deferred his retirement decision until next year, leading some insiders to wonder whether he is reassessing his initial inclination.

Republicans who are urging the Budget chairman to seek another term note that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has said he’ll serve only two terms, and that would give Nickles another opportunity to try to move back into the leadership after the 2006 elections.

But if Frist botched the recent tax negotiations, Nickles came off even worse. Some critics of the Frist-Nickles-Grassley agreement with deficit-hawk Sens. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) have explained Frist’s mistake by pointing to his recent elevation to the leadership. But they add that Nickles, in his fourth term and a onetime party Whip, should have known better. [IMGCAP(1)]

The flap could once again convince the Oklahoma Senator that he’ll never make it back into the leadership. But insiders caution against that conclusion, and Nickles continues to do the things he needs to if he decides to run again.

While Oklahoma is a reliably Republican state, an open Senate seat could well prove too attractive for Democratic Rep. Brad Carson to resist. Carson could well be a strong statewide candidate, as could state Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who has already talked with national Democratic strategists.

Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). Edwards has an interesting decision: commit himself totally to the presidential contest or keep the North Carolina Senate race as a life raft. But with Republican Rep. Richard Burr already in the race, Edwards risks considerable damage among Tar Heel State voters if he tries to wait until early 2004 before dropping out of the White House race.

Allies of Edwards acknowledge privately that he’ll have to make a final decision about his Senate seat around Labor Day. If they’re right, and given Edwards’ early successes in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, it’s hard to see the Senator running for re-election.

Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.). Young, 72, was first elected to Congress in 1970 and is approaching the end of his tenure as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He hasn’t faced serious opposition in years (drawing under 60 percent only once, in 1992) and can probably hold his seat as long as he wants it. And even if he gives up his committee chairmanship, he could still pick up a key subcommittee.

Democratic strategists note that Young’s district went for Al Gore in 2000, and they’d make it a very high recruiting priority for 2004 — as long as Young isn’t on the ballot. Indeed, Florida’s 10th district would be a perfect example of the kind of seat that has been out of play for years but could well go Democratic when it is open.

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