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The Retirement Season

Between carving the bird and unwrapping presents, many members may decide to leave Congress.

Adults from across the country, who spent their childhoods in foster care and are also members of Foster Care Alumni of America, celebrate Thanksgiving in front of the Capitol in 2007.(AP Photos/Susan Walsh)

photo of Reid Wilson
November 16, 2011

Thanksgiving and the winter holidays are a peaceful time after the mad rush of last-minute legislating, but the time away can give members a chance to think of what comes beyond Washington. The biennial retirement season, which runs from Thanksgiving through the end of February, can wreak havoc on either party’s plans to take control of the House of Representatives. It’s an unpleasant time for strategists on either side plotting to seize control of the lower chamber.

Perhaps the first real indication that Republicans had a shot at winning the House in 2010 came between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 2009, a period in which Democrats worried over retirement announcements from Reps. Dennis Moore, Brian Baird, Bart Gordon, and John Tanner. (Republicans eventually won all four of those seats.) In fact, last cycle, 15 of the 19 members who quit politics altogether announced they were leaving between Nov. 23, when Moore made his announcement, and Feb. 27, when then-Rep. John Linder said he would quit.

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This year, retirements have already taken their toll on Democratic chances to win back the House. The party will struggle to hold seats being vacated by Reps. Mike Ross, D-Ark., Jerry Costello, D-Ill., Dan Boren, D-Okla., and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind. Republicans will have an easier time defending their open seats, though Democrats have won races in recent years in places like Montana and North Dakota, where incumbent Republicans are running for Senate.

In total, seven Democrats have announced they will retire, while eight are running for another office. Seven Republicans are stepping down, all of them seeking another elected position.

That leaves the perpetual parlor game of retirement-watching focused on a number of seats that could become vacant in the next few months, after members reflect on their future. The lists of potential retirements are small, but they can mean the difference in winning a majority.

Democrats are not certain Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., will run again, even though his campaign has said several times he will actively seek an 11th term; he faces health concerns that have kept him away from Washington this year. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., is still recovering, and while her friends and allies have made sure she’s got the money she needs to run, she has not made a decision, a position her husband reiterated in an interview this week.

Republicans hope to force several other Democrats toward the exits, including Reps. John Barrow, D-Ga., Lois Capps, D-Calif., Heath Shuler, D-N.C., and Collin Peterson, D-Minn. But those hopes may be for naught; all four insist they will run for another term.

Reps. Brad Miller, D-N.C., and Jim Matheson, D-Utah, have difficult decisions to make now that their districts have been dramatically redrawn. Miller will face Rep. David Price, D-N.C., in a primary. Matheson, on the other hand, said talk of his retirement “is just wishful thinking on the part of Republicans.” He has not ruled out a run for governor.

The Democratic retirees will put even more of a dent in what’s left of the conservative Blue Dog caucus. Once a pillar of the Democratic effort to retake the House, the caucus was decimated in the 2010 elections; now, with Ross and Boren leaving and Shuler and Barrow facing difficult reelection fights, if they ultimately do run, there is a good possibility the four leaders of the Blue Dog Coalition will not return to the 113th Congress.

Add in Matheson’s predicament and the departing Donnelly, and at least half a dozen additional Blue Dogs are either possible retirees or in electoral danger. Reps. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., and Ben Chandler, D-Ky., could all face tough reelection bids next year.

On the GOP side, radically redrawn district lines have left Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., effectively without a seat; the new map gives him much more Democratic territory to defend. Similarly, new lines have Democrats eyeing Reps. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., Bill Young, R-Fla., and Richard Hanna, R-N.Y. Now that Bartlett’s district includes parts of Montgomery County, he is one of Democrats’ top pickup opportunities. Ironically, if Young and Stearns quit, that might actually help Republican mapmakers in Florida, where the party is trying to carve out space for GOP incumbents. Gallegly tried to retire in 2010 but was talked into running again. Hanna has had health problems and could become a real retirement risk if he’s drawn into a district with Rep. Bill Owens, D-N.Y.

Republicans on Capitol Hill would not be stunned if Reps. Howard Coble, R-N.C., Don Young, R-Alaska, Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., or Ralph Hall, R-Texas, retire; all four are over 75, and they represent solidly red districts. Many observers say Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., is nearing retirement, though he has scheduled a campaign kickoff event for Jan. 26 and will be on the ballot next year, a spokesman said.

Both Republicans and Democrats have put a greater emphasis in recent cycles on encouraging potential retirees to make their decisions sooner rather than later, in order to give potential replacements the time they need to get on the ballot. But throughout the country, candid conversations with families will inevitably lead to yet another tumultuous retirement season, one that will leave both parties scrambling to recruit new candidates in the early months of 2012.

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