Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) on Monday announced he will retire from the House at the end of his current term, handing House GOP leaders yet another swing-seat headache for 2008.
The nine-term lawmaker’s suburban Minneapolis district only marginally favors Republicans, and there is expected to be an intensely competitive race to succeed him next fall.
Ramstad cited being burned out and his desire to try something new in announcing his departure from the House at the end of the 110th Congress.
“Now it’s my time to do something else,” the 61-year-old Congressman said at an afternoon news conference at his district office in Minnetonka.
Ramstad is the sixth House Republican to announce retirement plans so far this year. Of those six open seats, three are expected to be highly competitive races with two more having the potential to become top-tier contests.
Three of the six departing Republicans are moderates — a fact Ramstad acknowledged when he said he was part of a “dying breed.”
While Republicans can still hold Ramstad’s seat, one GOP consultant gave a very grim assessment of the current House playing field and noted that each additional retirement becomes more burdensome to the party’s efforts to regain seats in the chamber.
“I think the Republican prospects in the House are poor and getting poorer by the day,” said the consultant, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “These Republican retirements such as Jim Ramstad in Minnesota’s 3rd district are very problematic in that they take what would be a safe seat for Ramstad and turn it into a competitive seat.”
Simply put, the GOP literally can’t afford too many more retirements.
The House Republicans’ campaign arm faces a significant financial disadvantage some 14 months before Election Day. At the end of July, the National Republican Congressional Committee had a little less than $2 million in the bank and $4.1 million in debt. House Democrats showed $21.3 million on hand for their 2008 efforts and $3.6 million in debt.
Only two Democrats so far have announced plans to leave the House after 2008. Both are running for Senate and represent districts that are not considered highly competitive.
NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) said in a statement Monday that the district has been represented by a Republican for more than 45 years and that he did not expect that to change with Ramstad’s departure.
“The NRCC will be working with local Republicans to field a candidate who will continue fighting for the people of Minnesota’s Third Congressional District and representing their interests on the federal level,” Cole said.
Still, the consultant noted that presidential election years generally have not been kind to Republicans in Minnesota.
The 3rd district is much more of a swing territory than the adjoining 6th district, which is represented by freshman Rep. Michele Bachmann (R), who won a hard-fought open-seat battle in the previous cycle. Political observers in Minnesota said Ramstad was able to hold his district so easily by the force of his personality — and because he adapted politically and moved to the center as his constituents did.
“Jim was his own creature,” said Barry Casselman, a Minnesota-based political commentator. “He came out of the Legislature very conservative but in the end he was very liberal.”
Strategists from both parties said Monday that the key to which party wins the seat in 2008 could rest with the political profile of their respective nominees. While both parties will feel pressure from their bases to nominate ideologically pure candidates, a moderate is more likely to prevail in the general election.
“Replacing [Ramstad] with a Democrat is probably going to be the best fit for that district,” said Brian Melendez, the Democratic chairman in the Gopher State.
In Minnesota, party committees in the Congressional district will designate their preferred candidates at party conventions. But some candidates may opt against participating in a convention and force a September primary.
Operatives in the state said it is difficult to predict what kind of candidates will emerge from the convention.
Among possible Democratic candidates, lawyer Andrew Luger was mentioned most frequently Monday afternoon. Despite being formally endorsed by the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party last year, Luger lost a nonpartisan election for Hennepin County attorney to Mike Freeman, the son of former Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman (D).
“I’m hearing he has the fire in the belly — the question is whether he wants to do it,” one Minnesota-based Democratic operative said of Luger.
Also mentioned prominently Monday was state Rep. Melissa Hortman (D), who owns an auto body shop with her husband and could, according to the Democratic operative, appeal to working-class swing voters.
Other potential Democratic candidates include Buck Humphrey, the grandson of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey who lost a bid for Minnesota secretary of State in 2002, state Rep. Steve Simon, state Sen. Terri Bonoff and state Rep. Ann Lenczewski.
Potential Republican contenders include state Sens. Geoff Michel and David Hann and state Rep. Erik Paulsen. Michel is seen as the moderate of the trio, while the other two are more conservative.
Another intriguing Republican name circulating Monday was that of Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek.
Stanek’s career seemed to be on a downturn when the Minnesota Senate rejected his nomination to become the state’s commissioner of public safety several years ago after it was revealed that he had made racially insensitive remarks as a young police officer. But he won wide acclaim for his handling of the bridge collapse over the Mississippi River earlier this summer.
Meanwhile Monday, colleagues praised Ramstad, a member of the Ways and Means Committee who compiled a moderate legislative track record during his 17 years in the House.
So far this year he has broken with his party on several key votes, including being one of 17 Republicans to vote against the troop “surge” in Iraq.
“Jim has fought for lower taxes and pro-growth economic policies, while remaining a steadfast, independent voice for the people of his district,” Cole said in his statement. “I greatly admire and appreciate Congressman Ramstad’s leadership on mental and physical health disabilities and know that he will continue advocating these issues long after he leaves the U.S. House.”
Ramstad, a recovering alcoholic, has focused much of his attention on addiction issues and mental health parity. On Monday, he said he expects to pass legislation that would ease access to health insurance for people with mental health and addiction problems before he leaves politics and that would be his legacy in the House.
Ever since Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s (D-R.I.) late-night car crash on the Capitol complex and his subsequent admission that he was addicted to prescription painkillers, Ramstad has served as Kennedy’s recovery sponsor.
Kennedy and Ramstad have worked together to pass the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act.
“Jim is quite possibly one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. I often joke that this country needs more Republicans like him,” Kennedy said in a statement released by his office. “He is passionate about the things that matter most, first and foremost family, and he is driven by a desire to help his fellow man at every turn. He has been there for me personally, as a friend and a sponsor in recovery, and professionally as an ally on key legislation that we have worked on together.”