House Retirement Watch Begins

Posted June 14, 2011 at 6:45pm

The first House retirement announcement last week kicked off the biennial game of speculation about which Members might be making this Congress their last.

Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) caught some by surprise when he said he’s stepping down at the end of next year and not seeking higher office. He certainly won’t be the last to throw in the towel this cycle.

Party officials are closely watching some of the longest-tenured and oldest Members — who might decide that it’s their time to gracefully exit rather than run in a newly redrawn district.

Indeed, redistricting will complicate the re-election plans of many Members this cycle, although operatives do not expect the decennial process to lead to an avalanche of House retirements. That’s because the past three cycles have been wave elections and a large chunk of House Members are relatively new.

For Boren, who is only 37, the decision to retire seemed to have more to do with a lifestyle change and having a young family than other concerns.   

“Boren didn’t need to retire because of redistricting,” former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said. “You’re also seeing a political landscape changing that for some people, Congress isn’t as enjoyable as it was. Usually a retirement is a nice general way of going in this atmosphere.”

Open seats also create prime pickup opportunities, so both parties are monitoring the Members who may be leaning toward making an exit.

On top of the GOP watch list is Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), who has spoken openly with reporters about pursuing a bid for governor or Senate instead of running for re-election. Republicans could easily redraw the Congressional boundaries in the state to make Matheson’s district more favorable for the GOP.

Republicans are also paying close attention to Rep. Brad Miller (D) in North Carolina, where the GOP Legislature controls the mapmaking process and is expected to drastically redraw his district. Miller also reported a measly $69,000 in the bank at the end of March — hardly the cash supply of a Member who is preparing for a tough race. But a Miller spokeswoman said her boss is running again.

GOP officials are also monitoring two Georgia Democrats, Reps. Sanford Bishop and John Barrow, one or both of whom is expected to be targeted aggressively by GOP mapmakers. Additionally, Republicans say they’re watching 11-term Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) to see if he calls it quits now that he’s no longer Agriculture chairman. One of the Congressman’s aides told Roll Call that he had not yet said publicly whether he would seek another term.

Also on the GOP watch list are Democratic Reps. Maurice Hinchey (N.Y.) and Dale Kildee (Mich.), both of whom hail from states that are losing at least one House seat and would therefore do their own Caucus a favor by stepping aside.

Meanwhile, Democrats continue to keep tabs on 21-term Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), who currently represents a Democratic-leaning district and whose name has topped the retirement watch list for several cycles. The party is keeping an eye on 12-term Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) to see whether he decides to step aside after the new Congressional map is complete.

Democrats are also closely monitoring 16-term Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), as well as 10-term Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.). Wolf’s fellow Republicans control the redistricting process in Virginia, and they will try to shore up his Democratic-trending district. However,  Democrats are redrawing the lines for Bartlett in Maryland — and retirement could be the easiest exit for the second-oldest Member of the House.

Although both GOP Reps. Judy Biggert (Ill.) and Joe Barton (Texas) have signaled they plan to run for re-election, the proposed maps in their respective states include lots of changes to the territory they represent. Democrats are keeping tabs on both.

Additionally, Democrats are watching 14-term Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), whose conservative district is surrounded by districts held by Democrats and might change after the lines are drawn.

Then there’s California, where, for the first time, an independent commission is redrawing Congressional boundaries following decades of gerrymandered House districts that mostly benefited Democrats. The commission’s first-draft map was released Friday and is widely viewed as helpful to Democrats, but it might still push a few Members toward the door.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) is on top of any retirement watch list after her aides told reporters last year that she was considering leaving, and several local elected officials are currently jockeying to be her replacement. The dean of the California delegation, Rep. Pete Stark (Calif.), told reporters as recently as this week that he’s running for re-election, but nonetheless after 10 terms in the House he usually finds himself on retirement watch lists.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) has represented one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country for the past decade, but changes to her district under the new map might be enough to make her throw in the towel, although her aide has told reporters that she will run “regardless.”

For Republicans, proposed changes to the Congressional map could also mean tougher races for Reps. Buck McKeon, Elton Gallegly and Jerry Lewis — putting the GOP trio high on Democrats’ watch list. Lewis was denied the waiver he needed to keep the Appropriations gavel when Republicans assumed control of the House this Congress. He has not yet announced whether he’ll seek another term.

Nonetheless, campaign veterans caution not to expect an onslaught of retirements this cycle — even once the new Congressional maps are finished. That’s in part because many of the Members who would normally step down following Congressional redistricting were forced out in the wave elections of 2006, 2008 and 2010. What’s more, the shift in power in the House over the past three cycles has left Members of both parties hungry to either hold on to or take back the Speaker’s gavel.

That wasn’t the case in 2002, when Democrats had been out of power for almost a decade. In that cycle, 18 House Members opted to retire while 19 ran for another office.

“I think the politics of 2002 were a little different in the sense that there were probably more Democrats sick of being in the minority who simply lost the fire in the belly, and so it was easier to retire than to try to motivate themselves to raise the money and go through another grueling campaign,” said Mark Nevins, a Democratic strategist who worked at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2002.

The largest class of House departures in recent history was following redistricting in 1992, when an astounding 52 Members opted to retire as another 14 ran for higher office. So far this cycle, only nine House Members have announced they’ll run for higher office, which makes for 10 open seats so far, including the Boren retirement.

“I don’t think you’d see any more than usual based on 2000 and the last couple cycles,” said Carl Forti, a veteran GOP strategist who worked at the National Republican Congressional Committee during the 2002 cycle. “Obviously we’re going to have to see how some states redraw, but I would not anticipate an overabundance of retirements this cycle either.”