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House GOP on Retiree Watch

Rep. Ray LaHood’s (R-Ill.) announcement late last week that he will not run for re-election offered the first glimpse of what could become a retirement conundrum for a House GOP still growing accustomed to the minority.

Publicly, Republican campaign strategists say they feel confident their ranks will hold and they will not see a mass exodus from the House in 2008. From a financial standpoint, the party literally can’t afford to have many openings.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) dismissed suggestions that the GOP’s downgraded status to the minority would lend itself to more retirements heading into next year.

“So far I don’t see us losing Members because we lost the majority,” Cole said, adding that LaHood’s retirement was a “life decision” and not one based on majority or minority status.

There always is speculation that Members will retire after losing the majority, Cole said, noting that in 1996 — the cycle following the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress — Democratic retirements were not as widespread as some predicted. That year Democrats ended up defending 28 open seats while Republicans were defending 21.

Since that time, both parties have been successful in holding retirements to a minimum, averaging around 32 per cycle combined this decade.

“People forget why people came here in the first place. Most of the people here on both sides of the aisle really care about public policy and really do enjoy being Members of Congress and really know how special the privilege is so all those things work together,” Cole said.

Former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is expected to make his election plans known in the coming weeks, with his retirement viewed as a foregone conclusion at this point. Democrats are hopeful that they can contest his suburban Chicago GOP-leaning district.

Elsewhere, many eyes are on GOP Reps. Ralph Regula (Ohio), Bill Young (Fla.), Jo Ann Davis (Va.), John McHugh (N.Y.), Don Manzullo (Ill.) and Barbara Cubin (Wyo.) as potential retirees.

McHugh, who has not made his re-election decision, said being in the minority now was not part of calculating his future plans.

“I haven’t heard a big rush to the door and I don’t expect it,” he said.

Several Members with ethical woes also are on the retirement watch list, including GOP Reps. Rick Renzi (Ariz.), Jerry Lewis (Calif.), John Doolittle (Calif.) and Don Young (Alaska) — all of whom are under federal investigation.

Rep. Tom Davis (R) is all but certain to vacate his Northern Virginia seat if Sen. John Warner (R) announces he is not running for re-election, though retirements because of higher office ambitions look likely to be very minimal this cycle on both sides of the aisle.

Davis’ seat is ripe for a Democratic takeover if he vacates it. Democrats also would have instantly competitive races in the swing districts of Young, McHugh, Renzi and Regula.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (Va.) is running the incumbent retention program for the NRCC this cycle, and Cole said there is a joint leadership and NRCC staff effort to keep tabs on Members rumored to be considering retirement.

“It starts with a long list and some we can take off right away, others will tell you, ‘It’s a possibility, here’s my time frame.’ In this game, no surprises is what you want,” Cole said, noting that the circumstances are different for each Member so the pitch is usually different. “It’s really more nuanced than, ‘Everybody’s got to stay here,’” he said.

Cole added that it has not been a tremendous problem for the NRCC so far because Members still feel engaged, citing the battles this week over the farm bill.

“We’re too close to being in the majority,” he said. “Our guys have had some good victories on the floor and they feel like they count. … They’re all ginned up about the farm bill, you know tax increases being shoved in in the dead of night — that’s the kind of stuff that makes Republican blood boil and really helps me keep the candidates we’ve got because there’s plenty of fight in them. There’s a lot of piss and vinegar in the Republican Party.”

But privately, party strategists know they have some critical months ahead.

September could be key for the GOP, as retirement announcements generally flourish after Members have spent the August recess back at home and have had down time to contemplate their futures. The state of the Iraq War by the fall also could have an impact on those deliberations.

While not all retirements will produce competitive races, most open-seat contests end up costing the incumbent party some money.

For instance, the strong Democratic winds of 2006 forced the NRCC to spend valuable resources defending open seats in Idaho and Nebraska — districts that voted 69 percent and 75 percent, respectively, for President Bush in 2004.

While Republicans in conservative districts and states will no doubt be aided by the presidential election in 2008, the stark financial advantage Democrats enjoy a year and a half before the election makes even seemingly “safe” open-seat possibilities appear all the more troublesome.

At the end of June, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had $19.5 million in the bank compared with the NRCC’s $2 million.

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said so far the NRCC and GOP leaders haven’t ramped up efforts beyond the usual “don’t retire” pitch to stave off vacancies.

Kirk said that while there could be a significant number of GOP retirements, he thought most Republicans were willing to wait to see the outcome of the 2008 race for the White House.

“Except for the really senior guys, most Members, I think, would like to serve at least at the start of a new presidency because they’d get to survey the lay of the land and understand who the new players are, and all of their future prospects are brighter if they’ve known and met the new team, and the new team could be very fun to work with,” Kirk said.

At least one senior Republican said he plans on sticking around.

“Somebody asked me the other day how long I was going to stay up here and I said I’m not trying to emulate [Sen.] Strom Thurmond’s [R-S.C.] record, but I plan to run at least next time,” said 12-term Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) on Friday. “The adjustment has not been difficult for me because I’ve spent more time in the minority than I have in the majority in my career.”

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), who served in the House after Democrats lost the majority in 1994, said the dynamic for Republicans is different this time around.

In 1994 “most of the [Democrats] had never lived in the minority and they had been around for decades so you had many senior Members who had decided to retire based on, I think, the recognition they were getting close to retirement whether or not we lost the majority,” Becerra said. “I think here the situation is a little different for Republicans in that having been in the majority for 12 years — while that’s a significant amount of time — there’s still a lot of Members who have served in both the majority and minority and it’s a different calculation for them. It’s not quite apples to apples.”

Becerra said the political climate for 2008 bodes well at this point for Democrats retaining the majority, and that realization could force more GOP retirement announcements as filing deadlines approach next year.

“If you had to bet, that’s where you put your money. That’s the pass line on the craps table,” he said.

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