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Analysis: Retirements Signal That Campaign Crunch Time Is Near

The spate of high-profile Democratic retirement announcements over the past day, by veteran Sens. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Byron Dorgan (N.D.) and by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, have produced spin from the two major parties that, as usual, contains a dollop of truth seasoned by hyperbole.

Republicans contend Democrats are “running for the hills.— They argue that an increasing number of Democratic incumbents see their party hurtling toward disaster in November because the public is turning against policies pursued by President Barack Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev).

The GOP already has claimed a one-seat gain with the Dec. 22 party switch by freshman Rep. Parker Griffith, elected as a Democrat in Alabama’s strongly conservative-leaning 5th district. Griffith cited opposition to the legislative agenda of the Democratic majority as his motivation for crossing the aisle.

Yet even with the spate of House Democratic retirement decisions late in the fall, and the headline-making bow-outs by Dodd and Dorgan revealed Tuesday, the image of Democrats racing each other to the lifeboats is, at this point at least, still a stretch.

There still are more House Republicans (14) who are not seeking re-election — either retiring or running for other office — than Democrats (10). Dorgan and Dodd are the first elected Democratic Senators to eschew re-election bids; even when you add in two 2009 appointees who are not running in November’s elections — Illinois’ Roland Burris and Delaware’s Ted Kaufman — the Democrats still are two up on the six seats left open by Republican Sens. Kit Bond (Mo.), Jim Bunning (Ky.), Judd Gregg (N.H.), George Voinovich (Ohio), Sam Brownback (Kan.) and appointee George LeMieux (Fla.).

Departure Parity

While all four of the open Democratic Senate seats will be heavily targeted by Republicans, Democrats are expected to run strong campaigns for five of the six GOP open seats (with Kansas being the exception).

Democrats, for their part, are adamant that retirements are part of every election cycle, and that theirs have just tended to come in clutches. Four House Democrats announced their retirements in a three-week period, between Nov. 23 and Dec. 14. And the nearly simultaneous Senate retirements announced Tuesday were bound to grab attention.

Of this week’s events, the only one that is a clear setback for the Democrats is Dorgan’s unexpected dropout. His departure opens a seat in Republican-leaning North Dakota and makes it much more likely that the GOP will succeed in drawing a Senate bid by popular three-term Gov. John Hoeven.

But Democrats view Dodd’s withdrawal in Connecticut as a boost in their efforts to hold the seat. Though unbeatable in his previous Senate contests since 1980, Dodd’s popularity unraveled over the past two years — mostly because of his ill-fated decision to run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination and the onset of the nation’s financial crisis that focused attention on Dodd’s role as Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs chairman.

Dodd will be replaced at the top of the Democratic ticket by longtime state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, whose epic approval ratings appear to have restored the party’s edge in a race that appeared to be slipping away from them.

Ritter’s retirement as Colorado governor may be a partisan wash. Like many top state officeholders, Ritter has been beleaguered by budget problems exacerbated by the national recession, and a fresh face may have as good a chance or better of holding the seat.

That’s the same reason many Democrats were sanguine about Tuesday’s other big campaign news, the decision by Michigan Lt. Gov. John Cherry to drop his bid in this year’s open-seat race for governor.

Nearing the Tipping Point

But the Democrats would be clearly understating the case if they claim there is nothing consequential about the retirement announcements, in a single day, by two long-entrenched Senate incumbents, a sitting governor and a candidate who appeared to have dibs on a gubernatorial nomination.

The Democrats in recent weeks have had a few other recruiting setbacks, including the withdrawals of Laura Kelly, a state Senator who dropped her challenge to freshman Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.), and technology executive Jack McDonald, who had raised a pile of money for what Democratic strategists hoped would be a strong challenge to three-term Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas).

It is too early to say the die is cast for the outcome of November’s election. Just as the Democrats find themselves in a much more difficult electoral environment than they expected 10 months ago, they could end up on more solid ground on Election Day nearly 10 months from now — especially if the economy perks up noticeably.

But it is also clear that the Democrats are on the clock. In December, Republican pollster Ed Goeas — co-director of the bipartisan Battleground Poll sponsored by George Washington University — said history shows it takes six months for voters to recognize that the economy is recovering from a recession. If he is right, that would give Democrats until May to persuade midterm election voters that things are changing for the better.

Pollster Celinda Lake, Goeas’ Democratic partner on the poll, stated a similar view, saying the economic indicators for the first quarter of this year will be crucial to stemming a Republican tide.

But the Democrats’ hopes for protecting their now-sizable majorities may hinge on a moment coming sooner: Obama’s State of the Union address, on a date to be determined in late January or early February. A persuasive argument by Obama of why his program is the cure for what ails America could give fellow Democrats the platform on which they need to run.

Obama’s meteoric rise was built on the power of his oratory, from his 2004 national emergence as keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention through his campaign for president and his victory speech on Election Night 2008. If he has one great speech left in him, this would be a good time to unleash it.

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