WASHINGTON — Hit by a wave of planned Republican retirements, House GOP leaders find themselves at the helm of a leaky political ship as this fall’s congressional elections approach.
Not since 1958 – a half-century ago – has a political party in the House minority faced such an uphill battle to merely keep the number of seats it has, much less pick up ground on the majority.
“These retirements certainly have an impact on morale, and they are not particularly helpful,” acknowledges Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, who as GOP conference chairman ranks as the chamber’s No. 3 Republican.
The numbers confronting House Republicans are daunting.
The GOP is already down 33 seats to majority Democrats in the 435-seat House, 231-198. But now, Republicans must also contend with the exodus of their comrades who are retiring at the end of the year — 25 compared to just six Democrats who are retiring.
And those numbers don’t take into account that four other House Republicans, including former Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, have already resigned, two of them leaving for higher office. Special elections to fill those seats and those of California Democrat Tom Lantos and Indiana Democrat Julia Carson – who both have died – are scheduled between March and June.
“The Republicans in the House are in deep trouble,” said Steven Smith, a congressional and politics expert at Washington University in St. Louis.
To regain the majority, Republicans would need to keep all of their seats up for special elections this spring, and then pick up 16 more seats this fall than do Democrats.
But non-partisan political analysts, such as David Wasserman, an expert on the U.S. House with the Cook Political Report, predict the GOP is more likely to see a net loss of seven to 12 seats in November, bringing their deficit in the House to 40 to 45 seats.
Much of the blame for what could be another bad showing by Republican congressional candidates this fall is not being directed at the current crop of House GOP leaders, which includes Putnam.
Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio, Putnam, and others in the current House GOP vanguard took over only last year, after their party had already fumbled away its hold on the chamber’s majority.
Rather, Smith, Wasserman and others say added GOP losses in the House this fall will have more to do with the public’s continued bad mood over the current White House resident, events in Iraq, and the economy.
There’s also the prospect that Democratic Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who already has shown he can attract and excite waves of new voters for his party to the polls, will be atop the opposing ticket, they say.
But more than anything, they say Republicans are headed for trouble this fall because so many in their ranks – who enjoyed until last year being a part of the House majority — simply are not eager to risk spending a second term as a House minority member.
“The question has become, is it worth it?” Smith said. “Is it worth it to run again, and risk defeat, just to return to the House and sit in the minority and do nothing but send out epithets to the Democrats?”
But along with their departures, goes in many cases the huge advantages the Republican Party may have had in retaining many of their seats this fall.
Incumbents in Congress recorded a 91.3 percent re-election rate in 2006, down only slightly from the nearly automatic 97-98 percent seen in recent years.
The last time one party had to defend such a high percentage of the total so-called “open-race” seats – those in which the incumbent will not be seeking re-election this fall — was in 1958, when 27 Republicans retired and just 6 Democrats did so, said Wasserman.
If history from is any guide from 1958, things do not bode well for the Grand Old Party. Democrats that fall won 14 of the seats vacated by Republican retirees, said Wasserman, while the GOP won none of the six Democratic seats.
But it’s not merely the lopsided ratio of 25 Republican retirements to six Democratic retirements that spells trouble for the GOP.
It’s where in the nation these seats are opening up.
According to Wasserman’s analysis, Republicans have only “a plausible” chance to steal a seat currently held by a Democrat in an historically marginal Oregon district, where a Republican with name recognition left over from his 2006 bid has a chance.
However, Wasserman believes that 10 of the Republican seats whose current occupants are retiring could be “toss-ups” between the two parties.
Another eight GOP seats are seen as “potentially competitive.” And still two other currently held GOP seats in Alabama and Louisiana could potentially switch over if well-known and popular local Democrats decide to jump in those races, he said.
In Florida, only one House incumbent – Republican Dave Weldon — has said he is not seeking re-election at the end of the year. His seat is not seen as particularly vulnerable to Democratic capture.
Weldon was first elected in the so-called “Republican Revolution” of 1994, taking a seat that had been held by a moderate Democrat who retired. And until last year, Weldon had always served in the House majority.
Now that he is serving in his first term in the House minority, Weldon has announced he is leaving Congress at the end of the year, citing a desire to return to his medical practice and spend more time with his family.
There was an even larger exodus of incumbents from Congress in 1996 than this year. There were 53 retirements, after Republicans won the majority in 1994.
But the break-down of those retirements by party was more even then, Wasserman said. The newly demoted Democrats that year led Republicans in retirements only 30 to 23. Republicans eventually captured ten of those Democratic open seats, while Democrats captured only four Republican open seats.
“There’s no question that the number of open seats (seats now held by Republicans who won’t seek re-election) we have to defend does take something away from our ability to go on offense as much as I would like,” said Putnam.
But Putnam also said he believes there is “a sense out there” that with congressional approval ratings dipping even lower than when Republicans lost the majority, it will be Democratic candidates who are going to have to defend a “very unpopular Congress.”
Reporter Billy House can be reached at (202) 662-7673 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are the Congressional Districts or so-called “open seats” up for grabs in the U.S. House this fall, listed by the names of their incumbents who will not be running for re-election.There are 25 of those seats that are now held by Republicans; six are held by Democrats.
Terry Everett, retiring from Alabama’s 2nd CD;
Rick Renzi, retiring from Arizona’s 1st CD;
John Doolittle, retiring from California’s 4th CD;
Duncan Hunter, retiring from California 52nd CD’
Tom Tancredo, retiring from Colorado’s 6th CD;
Dave Weldon, retiring from Florida’s 15 CD;
Jerry Weller, retiring from Illinois’ 11 CD;
Ray LaHood, retiring from Illinois’ 18 CD;
Ron Lewis, retiring from Kentucky’s 2nd CD;
Jim McCrery, retiring from Louisiana’s 4th CD;
Wayne Gilchrest, lost a primary, from Maryland’s 1st CD;
Jim Ramstad, retiring from Minnesota’s 3rd CD;
Kenny Hulshof, running for governor, from Missouri’s 9th CD;
Chip Pickering, retiring from Mississippi’s 3rd CD;
Jim Saxton, retiring, from New Jersey’s 3rd CD;
Mike Ferguson, retiring from New Jersey’s 7th CD;
Heather Wilson, running for U.S. Senate, from New Mexico’s 1st CD;
Steve Pearce, running for U.S. Senate, from New Mexico’s 2nd CD;
James Walsh, retiring from New York’s 25th CD;
David Hobson, retiring from Ohio’s 7th CD;
Deborah Pryce, retiring from Ohio’s 15th CD;
Ralph Regula, retiring from Ohio’s 16th CD;
John Peterson, retiring from Pennsylvania’s 5th CD;
Tom Davis, retiring from Virginia’s 11th CD;
Barbara Cubin, retiring from Wyoming’s at-large district.
Mark Udall, running for U.S. Senate, from Colorado’s 2nd CD;
Tom Allen, running for U.S. Senate, from Maine’s 1st CD.
Al Wynn, lost primary, from Maryland’s 4th CD;
Tom Udall, running for U.S. Senate, from New Mexico’s 3rd CD;
Michael McNulty, retiring, from New York’s 21st CD;
Darlene Hooley, retiring, from Oregon’s 5th CD.
Here are current House seat vacancies identified by the departing lawmakers and their Congressional District. These seats are to be filled in special elections between March and June.
Dennis Hastert, resigned from Illinois’ 14th CD on Nov. 27, 2007.
Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s 1st CD (sworn in as governor on Jan. 14).
Richard Baker, resigned from Louisiana’s 6th CD on Feb. 2.
Roger Wicker, Mississippi’s 1st CD (appointed to U.S. Senate on Dec. 31, 2007).
Julia Carson, Indiana’s 7th CD (died Dec. 15, 2007).
Tom Lantos, California’s 12th CD (died Feb. 11).
SOURCE: Cook Political Report and Media General’s Washington bureau.