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More Incumbents Head for Home

Two more House Republicans are headed for the exits, but that’s probably a mixed blessing for the GOP.

The good news for House Republicans is that the politically weak Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.) was expected to announce her retirement Saturday. But that development was tempered Friday by Rep. Jim Saxton’s (R-N.J.) statement that he will not seek a 14th term.

Saxton holds a competitive South Jersey seat that already was being heavily targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Cubin holds Wyoming’s Republican-leaning, at-large seat and has been viewed as a liability since barely winning re-election last year over a first-time Democratic candidate who is running again in 2008.

Democrats took the twin announcements as a sign of Republican weakness heading into 2008.

“The growing number of Republicans calling it quits is a clear indication the GOP will be on defense in 2008,” said DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell. “That is a bad sign for a party scrambling to defend its ties to [President] George Bush.”

Saxton said in a statement that he was planning to run for re-election until health problems made doing so untenable, explaining that he has been treated for prostate cancer and chronic sciatica. But Democrats and liberal interest groups believe ads they ran in Saxton’s district condemning him for his votes opposing a Democratic-sponsored State Children’s Health Insurance Program bill ultimately contributed to his decision to retire.

Cubin’s office declined on Friday to confirm or deny reports by GOP sources that she was set to announce her retirement at a meeting of the Wyoming GOP Central Committee scheduled for Saturday. However, rumors of her exit have been rampant this year, especially since she has been absent from the House for much of the 110th Congress tending to her hospitalized husband.

The dual retirement announcements came just as House Republicans were becoming more confident in their ability to hold several of their open seats. Excluding the Wyoming and New Jersey seats, where the political picture is still uncertain because of the newness of the vacancies, Republicans believe they have strong candidates for each of the openings. In fact, in some cases the GOP boasts that the new candidates are stronger than the departing incumbents.

Just as Cubin was seen as the weakest possible candidate the GOP could run in Wyoming, Republican strategists are privately relieved that scandal-tinged Reps. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) and Jerry Weller (R-Ill.), and 82-year-old Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), are departing.

“Not only are we well-positioned in our open-seat races, but in some cases we are stronger than we were to begin with,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said. “The DCCC might be regretting what they wished for because they are now facing a number of highly qualified Republican recruits who will undoubtedly run strong campaigns and be well financed.”

Besides three districts where special elections are pending to fill GOP seats, the retirements of Cubin and Saxton bring to 16 the number of Republican-held open seats the National Republican Congressional Committee must defend in 2008, with nearly a dozen of them looking as though they could be competitive.

Last week, after struggling for months to find a candidate to replace retiring Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), the NRCC, aided by Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), persuaded Ohio state Sen. Steve Stivers (R) — who previously had declined to run — to enter the contest.

Also last week, wealthy restaurateur Ed Tinsley became the first Republican to enter the race to replace Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who is running for Senate.

In addition to Stivers and Tinsley, the NRCC is especially high on Minnesota state Rep. Erik Paulsen, who is running to replace Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.); Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, the favored candidate to replace Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann, the early favorite for the Republican nomination in the race to replace Weller, and Illinois state Rep. Aaron Schrock, the frontrunner in the race to replace Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.).

The NRCC also is confident that primaries in Arizona’s 1st district, Illinois’ 14th district and Ohio’s 16th district will produce strong nominees.

But despite the NRCC’s enthusiasm for its open-seat recruits, the fact remains that the Democrats also have strong candidates for all of the competitive open seats. And if certain GOP incumbents were not retiring this cycle — like Ramstad, LaHood, Pearce and former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) — the Democrats likely would not be competing for their seats.

Thornell said Republicans “are trying to make lemonade out of lemons” by touting replacement candidates for incumbents who “are jumping ship.”

Republicans undeniably face uncertain odds in New Jersey’s 3rd district.

Vice President Al Gore won the district with 54 percent of the vote in the 2000 presidential contest, and President Bush took 51 percent in 2004. Saxton’s unexpected retirement could make the path to victory easier for state Sen. John Adler, who has been touted by the DCCC as one of the top recruits of the cycle.

In 1990, before Adler was elected to the New Jersey Legislature, he ran for Congress and lost to Saxton by 19 points. This cycle, he entered the race with almost $200,000 on hand courtesy of a federal campaign account he had set up in 2003 for a potential 2008 Senate bid. Adler chose not to run for Senate after Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) announced he intended to seek re-election.

Republicans in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., were caught off guard by Saxton’s revelation Friday and were not immediately prepared to discuss the political ramifications of his retirement.

But GOP insiders said the search for an A-list candidate could turn to state Sen. Diane Allen, who won re-election last Tuesday to a Democratic-leaning legislative district, and Burlington County Sheriff Jean Stanfield.

“New Jersey’s 3rd district is a Republican-leaning seat,” Spain said. “In last Tuesday’s elections, Republicans in Burlington County posted impressive victories, including winning an open state Senate race. We like our chances.”

On Capitol Hill, Saxton’s departure would set up a run for ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, where Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), the panel’s current top Republican, is also retiring. Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), each of whom was elected in 1992, could seek the spot, with Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) a notch below in seniority. Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) already is the ranking member on the Education and Labor Committee, and Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.) is retiring.

McHugh called Saxton’s departure “a big disappointment to me” but said he would consider seeking the ranking member slot.

“If things fall into place there will be plenty of time” to consider it, he said.

Bartlett, meanwhile, said he also would think about running, noting that he and McHugh came into the House together. “I’ve got what I think are good credentials. I don’t think anyone else out there has worked 20 years for the military and has 19 military patents,” Bartlett said. “I have no provincial interests and I have nothing that I need to protect so I can be open and honest.”

Meanwhile, Cubin’s retirement actually helps House Republicans, as the Congresswoman in 2006 defeated by just 1,012 votes Internet entrepreneur Gary Trauner (D), who is running again in 2008. The Congresswoman won that race with just 48 percent of the vote.

With Cubin out of the way, Republicans are expected to have an easier time holding her seat.

Several potentially formidable Republican candidates already were considering giving Cubin a primary challenge, while others had said they would contemplate running if the Congresswoman retired. Cubin’s exit is likely to accelerate the jockeying to replace her.

Among the top-tier Wyoming Republicans known to covet a run for federal office in 2008 are state Rep. Colin Simpson, the Majority Floor Leader of the Wyoming House of Representatives and son of former Sen. Alan Simpson (R); Matt Mead, who recently resigned as Wyoming’s U.S. attorney; former state Treasurer Cynthia Lummis; and former state GOP Chairman Tom Sansonetti.

Democrats, however, haven’t given up hope, even though they won’t have Cubin to run against.

“We’re impressed with Trauner as a candidate,” said one Democratic strategist based in Washington, D.C.

Steven T. Dennis and John McArdle contributed to this report.