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Democrats’ retirements point to shifting political landscape

The decisions by two powerful Democrats to retire from the Senate are a rude reminder of how dramatically the political climate has changed over the last 12 months since President Obama came to power -- a wind shift that has thrown the Democratic Party off balance and turned the politics of raising hope into the politics of managing anger.

The news that Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) would not seek reelection in 2010, compounded by Wednesday’s surprise announcement that the Democratic governor of Colorado would not seek another term, resulted from very different personal and political considerations. But all three cases point to the forces that could make it easier for Republicans to cut into Democrats’ commanding congressional majorities in the 2010 midterm election.

Dorgan bowed out in the face of what was expected to be a tough fight for reelection against a popular governor in a Republican-dominated state -- an emblem of how much harder it will be for Democrats this year to replicate their 2008 victories in conservative states and districts.

Dodd decided not to run again because of a barrage of controversies that showed, in an anti-incumbent environment, that the political assets of holding power can be outweighed by the liabilities of its trappings.

The anti-incumbent clamor that helped undercut Dodd’s stature also poses problems for Republicans. They are struggling to harness the energy of anti-establishment “tea party” activists, who are threatening the GOP in party primaries for the Senate in places such as Florida, where the state Republican Party chairman resigned this week under fire from the populist right.

Both parties will be challenged to keep their footing in an election year that promises to be even more volatile than usual. The allegiance of independent voters has been swinging rapidly. The U.S. economy and world affairs are in turmoil.

“You have an angry, volatile electorate more up for grabs than usual,” said Peter Fenn, a Democratic political consultant. “People are jumpy and unsettled about their future and the country’s future. Even cultural stuff is unstable. Look at Tiger Woods: One minute you’re a hero; the next minute you’re a bum.”

Still, the unstable political environment poses a bigger risk for the party in power.

Historically, the president’s party has lost seats in congressional midterm elections. For months, Democrats have seemed resigned to losing seats in 2010, narrowing but not losing their majority in the House and almost surely losing the 60-vote Senate majority that allowed them to break GOP filibusters on party-line votes.

The outlook grew grimmer in November, when Democratic candidates lost gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. In December, conservative Democratic Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama announced that he was switching parties. Many polls showed a steady decline in public approval of how Obama and congressional Democrats were doing their jobs and crafting their signature healthcare legislation.

Some Democrats say their party has suffered in part from Republicans’ success in setting the terms of debate. To succeed, Democratic pollster Geoff Garin argues, Obama and the Democrats will have to do a more aggressive job of keeping the election from becoming a referendum on Obama’s policies.

“The president’s inclination is not to be partisan in his tone, and that sets a tone for other Democrats,” Garin said. “The reality is that, given the relatively sour mood of the voters -- particularly independent voters -- and the very aggressive and hostile approach of the Republicans, Democrats have to approach this as a real fight and have to be forceful in defining what the fight is about.”

Early in the Obama administration, it looked like beleaguered Republicans would face a stampede of congressional retirements. But as the calendar turns, the 2010 exit ramps now are about equally divided between the parties.

Ten House Democrats and 14 House Republicans have announced they are not seeking reelection.

In the Senate, six Republican senators and five Democrats have announced their retirements. The Republicans are Jim Bunning of Kentucky, Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, George V. Voinovich of Ohio, Sam Brownback of Kansas and George LeMieux of Florida.

Before Dodd and Dorgan, three Democrats who were appointed to the Senate in the last year said they would not seek election this fall: Roland W. Burris of Illinois, who replaced Obama after he won the presidency; Ted Kaufman of Delaware, who took Vice President Joe Biden’s seat; and Paul G. Kirk Jr. of Massachusetts, who replaced the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Republicans have tried to portray Democratic retirements as a referendum on the party’s Obama-era record.

Another nationally prominent Democrat who has chosen to retire is Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. of Colorado, a rising star who announced Wednesday that he would not seek another term. His decision shocked Colorado Democrats, who were already demoralized by polls that showed the governor and the person he picked to become the state’s junior senator, Michael Bennet, trailing their likely Republican challengers.

It was a blow to a party that once boasted it was beginning to convert the Rocky Mountain West into a new Democratic bastion, back when Obama accepted the 2008 Democratic nomination at Denver’s Invesco Field.

“This is a disaster for the Democratic Party,” said Robert Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College. “Everyone is perceiving a Republican tide building in 2010, and Democrats are doing the natural thing and getting out of the way.”

Analysts said that the West’s independent-minded voters were willing to give Democrats a look in 2008, after being frustrated with the George W. Bush administration. Now they say that the party may be on the verge of losing its opportunity in the region.

“To lose this state at this moment almost across the board would be a pretty profound statement that the party is in deep trouble,” said Floyd Ciruli, an independent Denver pollster.

Without Dorgan, the heavily Republican state of North Dakota will likely be lost to a Republican if, as expected, the state’s popular GOP governor, John Hoeven, runs for the Senate. The state’s sole House member, Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy, had been considered a likely candidate to succeed Dorgan, but he announced Wednesday that he would seek reelection to his House seat in 2010.

Dodd’s retirement improves Democrats’ chances of holding on in Connecticut. He had been fighting for his political life, even though his home state is a Democratic stronghold. After decades of growing legislative power in the Senate, Dodd’s stature crumbled after his failed 2008 presidential bid. His problems included a controversy over low-interest mortgages that he received.

He was considered the most endangered Democratic incumbent in the Senate. Now, Democrats are confident of keeping the state in their camp.

Connecticut’s popular Democratic attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, quickly announced that he would run and is considered a heavy favorite to win. And before Republicans can even hope to change that dynamic, it has to resolve a spirited primary contest between three GOP candidates: former Rep. Rob Simmons; former World Wrestling Entertainment Chief Executive Linda McMahon, a multimillionaire; and Peter Schiff, an author and broker.

janet.hook@latimes.com

Staff writer Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.


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