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House Democrats Expecting Few Retirements

Despite the perception that they will have a difficult time winning back the majority, House Democratic leaders are expecting very few retirements in 2004 and have laid down the Fourth of July recess as the beginning marker for Members to make their re-election plans clear.

Leaders say that with a 12-seat deficit they can not afford to take any chances as the election cycle progresses and they will need to deal with potential departures as swiftly as possible.

Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he’s “guardedly optimistic” about keeping retirements to a minimum. He’s also confident Democrats can retain their current hold on 205 seats and possibly even chip away at the Republican majority.

Matsui stressed that Democrats can’t ask their Caucus to give a “hard and fast date” on their plans because a retirement decision is personal to each Member.

“But I would say that after the July Fourth recess we’re going to ask them for more clarity,” said Matsui. “We can’t afford to lose any Democrats. People understand that dynamic.”

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said leaders already are getting out front and talking to Members about their plans, but are finding very few lawmakers thinking about leaving.

“It’s good news,” Hoyer said. “I don’t know of anybody who is talking about retirement. Obviously, there are a few Members talking about running for higher office. Right now it appears to be a minimal problem.”

So far, only Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) — who is running for president — has announced plans to retire from the House. But at least eight Members are eyeing running for another office.

Among the lawmakers considering Senate bids are: Democratic Reps. Jim Marshall (Ga.), Brad Carson (Okla.), Joe Hoeffel (Pa.) and Bob Etheridge (N.C.). In Florida, Reps. Alan Boyd, Peter Deutsch and Alcee Hastings are weighing Senate runs, while Rep. Jim Matheson is believed to be considering a gubernatorial campaign in Utah.

None of those Members has publicly announced his plans, but several acknowledged that keeping their seats in Democratic hands is part of the decision. Most of these seats are considered marginal and could fall to the GOP.

Boyd said he’s in no rush, but will likely decide whether to seek the Senate seat after June 30, or around the beginning of the July break. He said while many factors play a role in his decision, retaining his seat for Democrats is key.

“That’s important to me,” he said. “Their bench is deeper than ours — and that’s a factor.”

In addition, several senior House Democrats with solid tenures are expected to be considering retirement.

Among those being watched are Reps. John Dingell (Mich.), Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), David Obey (Wis.), John Conyers (Mich.), John Murtha (Pa.), Ralph Hall (Texas), Charlie Stenholm (Texas) and John Olver (Mass.).

Stenholm, for one, insisted he’s in for a 14th term.

“I’m running,” he said. “We’re running hard. Whatever district they give me.”

Several Democratic strategists and Members themselves said they aren’t too concerned about longtime lawmakers such as Stenholm, who have built their careers around serving in the House.

“Many of them appear to be here for the long haul,” said one Democratic operative. “There’s really not all that many” looking to retire.

Rep. Martin Frost (Texas), a former DCCC chairman, said based on his experience “a lot of this will crystallize by the fall.”

He noted that some of the decision-making is beyond leaders’ control, noting that decisions to run for Senate in Florida and North Carolina depend on the future of White House candidates like Sens. Bob Graham (Fla.) and John Edwards (N.C.).

But Frost said there are fewer announced retirements among Democrats at this time of year than he’s seen in the past. In 2002, some 13 Democrats left the House, compared with just seven in 2000.

Frost attributes the expectation of a low number of departures to three issues: the new leadership team in the House, a desire among Members to fight Republicans, and optimism about the presidential campaign that will eventually produce a nominee who helps steer the direction of the party.

“A lot of people are staying put,” Frost said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.), who is working through the DCCC Frontline program to raise money for endangered Members, predicted “less than a handful” of Members will simply retire from the House. That doesn’t include those Members who will ultimately vie for another political post.

“I think we’ll be in good shape,” Menendez said.

Frontline will be strict about not assisting Members who decide to run for another post. He said that creates an incentive for House Members eyeing another bid to decide early.

“We want to be flexible, but our mission is to take back the House,” Menendez said. “And you can’t have monies flowing to Members and make disbursements into that account if they are going to run for the Senate.”

Although most Members do not typically make their final decisions about whether to run for re-election until Labor Day in the off year, a look back at the past four cycles shows that retirements this year are lagging slightly behind all but the 1996 election.

In June 2001, 13 Members had already announced their intentions to retire, with the vast majority of those (eight) running for either Senate or governor. Similarly, at this time in the 2000 and 1998 cycles, 15 and 10 Members, respectively, had decided against seeking re-election.

In June 1995 only four Congressmen had bowed out, but because of the landslide election the preceding year, where Republicans picked up 52 House seats, a number of potential retirees had already been defeated. Interestingly, despite the GOP taking control of the House for the first time in 40 years, three of the four Members who had announced their retirements in 1995 were Republicans.

Democrats say the retirement lineup could and likely will change later in the year, but they remain confident the numbers will remain low.

That’s even despite House Democratic losses in the November midterm elections, dropping them from a six-seat deficit to a 12-seat gap.

“Right after the election we were very worried,” Matsui said. “People were really down.”

But Matsui and other leaders say Democrats found hope in new team of House leaders led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Hoyer. And they were seeing some new life in their party after Louisiana Rep. Rodney Alexander (La.) narrowly won the open seat that had been held by the GOP.

“That gave Members an opportunity to sit back and say I’m going to see how things are going to go for a while,” Matsui said. “It gave us a lift.”

Hoyer, who formerly headed up Democratic recruiting, didn’t give a specific time frame for when leaders expect answers from Members about their re-election plans. But he said they have asked lawmakers to think seriously and soon about what they are going to do.

“We always ask Members to give us a heads-up and give us a heads-up as early as they can,” Hoyer said.

Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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