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Legacy Content / OFF TO THE RACES

Retirements Key To Holding House

Democrats Risk Losing Their Majority If Retirements Balloon Past 15

December 8, 2009

Republicans hope the back-to-back retirement announcements of Reps. Dennis Moore, D-Kan., and John Tanner, D-Tenn., will set off an avalanche that could make a takeover of the House more likely. While two does not a trend make, if this does mark the beginning of one, GOP hopes and Democratic fears could turn out to be true.

Amazingly, given the incredibly high level of acrimony on Capitol Hill these days, until Moore and Tanner announced their intended retirements, there were no pure retirements in the House. And of the seven Democrats and 12 Republicans who had announced they would leave their seats to run for other office, only three Democrats and three Republicans represented seats that could be considered marginal and very likely competitive.

Democrats have one open seat that might pretty much be a goner, that of Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., who is departing to engage in an uphill challenge against Sen. David Vitter, R-La.

 

For House Democrats, the difference between a bad election night and a horrific election night is probably the number of open seats in marginal or GOP-leaning districts.

Democrats must defend two more open seats caused by Senate candidacies, those of Reps. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., and Joe Sestak, D-Pa. Both of those districts have supported Democratic presidential nominees in recent elections but were represented by Republicans as recently as 2007 and can only be considered toss-ups.

Pretty symmetrically, Republicans have one open seat triggered by a Senate candidacy that might well be a goner, that of Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., where former Lt. Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, will enjoy a head start over a much-less-certain GOP field. Republicans have two more open seats that are toss-ups, those of Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who is running for the Senate, and Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa., who is running for governor. In both districts, both parties may host spirited primaries.

This is still very early in the process and only Illinois, which has a Feb. 2 primary, has already seen its Nov. 2 filing deadline pass with no retirements other than that of Kirk. The next filing deadlines to watch are Texas on Jan. 4, with a March 2 primary; Kentucky on Jan. 26, with a May 18 primary, and West Virginia on Jan. 30, with a May 11 primary.

In February the pace picks up, with four more states with filing deadlines to look for: New Mexico, Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina. Then a whopping 15 states have filing deadlines in March, seven more in April, five more in May, seven in June and finally eight in July.

Once we have a clearer idea of how many endangered open seats each side will have and could realistically lose, we can start calculating how realistic it is for enough incumbents to lose to add up to a 41-seat change, having subtracted a few anticipated GOP losses.

There are two sets of statistics to keep in mind as this situation begins to gel, and both can be drawn from each party's last tough midterm.

In the 1994 wipeout, 225 Democrats sought re-election, as 31 either retired or ran for other office; of those, 191 won, while 34 lost, an 85-15 percent ratio. But out of Democrats' 31 open seats, 22, or 71 percent, fell into GOP hands.

The last horrible midterm election for Republicans wasn't so long ago. In 2006, when 211 GOP incumbents sought re-election, 21 retired or ran for other office; 189 of the 211 won re-election, a 90-10 percent ratio. Out of Republicans' 21 open seats, eight, or 38 percent, fell into Democratic hands.

So the ballpark percentages for losses for House incumbents of a party under siege who are seeking re-election seem to be between 2006's 10 percent and 1994's 15 percent.

Do the math: Assume Republicans really need to pick off about 45 Democratic seats to net 41 seats. After all, even 1994's Democrats picked up four open GOP seats.

A 10 percent Democratic-incumbent loss rate might mean 20-25 Democrats are unseated, close to the number of seats Democrats picked up in 1982 during President Ronald Reagan's first midterm election. A 15 percent loss rate might mean 30-35 Democrats are unseated, close to the number of Democrats who lost reelection in 1994 but perhaps still not enough to turn the majority.

For House Democrats, the difference between a bad election night and a horrific election night is probably the number of open seats in marginal or GOP-leaning districts.

Right now, with the Moore and Tanner retirements, that number is five.

If Democrats can keep that number to a single digit, they will have impressively and significantly limited their exposure. If the number ends up between 10 and 15, Democrats will still have kept their retirements within expectations and would be favored to keep their majority. But if that number balloons past 15, Democratic open seats would present House Republicans with a real opportunity to hit one out of the park.

David Wasserman contributed to this column.

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