Everyone is watching and waiting for the "canary in the coal mine," that Democrat whose retirement will tell us how nervous incumbents really are about their chances in 2010. Is Kansas Rep. Dennis Moore, who abruptly announced his retirement on Monday, that canary?
By this point in 2007, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert had resigned his seat, essentially signaling to his party and the rest of the world that he saw little hope of taking back his gavel in 2008. By mid-December, 13 Republican incumbents -- including many from swing districts, like Ohio's Deborah Pryce, Minnesota's Jim Ramstad and New Jersey's Mike Ferguson -- had announced they weren't seeking re-election.
In 1996, just one cycle after Democrats had gotten their clocks cleaned, the party saw a bumper crop of retirements in southern congressional districts, including two in Arkansas, two in Alabama and six in Texas (plus a March 1996 special to replace retiring Rep. Jack Fields). Interestingly enough, however, Democrats held on to half those seats, including four that were truly swing districts.
Moderates and Blue Dogs know that the difference between sitting in the majority or the minority runs through their districts.
It's easy to see how Moore could fit into the slippery slope category. His suburban Kansas City seat is not a safe one, even though it went for President Obama in 2008. But the fact that we first wrote about rumors of his retirement in December of 2008 -- back when Obama's approval ratings were sky-high and no one was talking about the potential for big losses for the Democrats in 2010 -- suggests that his decision wasn't based on the current political climate.
Also important to remember is the fact that while the GOP has a deep bench here, Republicans never put up the kind of candidate that could give Moore a real race, namely a moderate. Given the antagonism between moderate and conservative Republicans in Kansas, there's the strong possibility the party will nominate someone far too conservative for this suburban district. Even so, Democrats have to be able to entice a serious candidate of their own to run. If they can't, it will be fair to blame it on the murky political outlook for Democrats in 2010.
If it's not Moore, who else could be that canary? GOP operatives are looking closely at the following Democrats: Leonard Boswell (Iowa), Ike Skelton (Missouri), Loretta Sanchez (California), John Tanner (Tennessee), John Spratt (South Carolina), Allen Boyd (Florida), Alan Mollohan (West Virginia), Sanford Bishop (Georgia), Marion Berry (Arkansas), Vic Snyder (Arkansas), Paul Kanjorksi (Pennsylvania) and Bart Gordon (Tennessee). All sit in marginal districts, and only Boswell and Kanjorski have had a competitive race this century.
Of that group, a Tanner retirement would carry the most weight. As the longtime leader of the Blue Dogs, and someone who's gone from majority to minority and back in his 21 years in Congress, many would take his decision as a signal that moderates were in a heap of trouble in '10. If a guy like that is leaving, the thinking would go, how can a freshman or sophomore in a similar district have any hope of hanging on?
Even so, after being in the majority for just three years, do these Democrats really want to pack it in now? Back in 1993-1994 when 26 Democrats balked on re-election, Democrats had been running the House for 40 years. Most Democrats and even Republicans couldn't imagine they'd ever lose that majority. Today, most Democrats have fresh memories of life in the minority. And the moderates and Blue Dogs of the House know that the difference between sitting in the majority or the minority runs through their districts.
DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland says his committee's "early warning" program will flag potential retirement threats before it's too late. Still, if members are looking at bleak polling numbers next year, is there anything that Van Hollen or anyone else could say that would change their minds?