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Dorgan, Dodd (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Charles Krupa)

Retirement week

Politics | The Democratic Party must deal with the game-changing withdrawals of four candidates

WASHINGTON-The Democratic euphoria over pushing healthcare reform through the House and Senate as the final days of 2009 ticked away has suddenly given way to some post-holiday blues for the majority party.

The first workweek of the 2010 election year is barely three days old, but Democrats are already dealing with the game-changing withdrawals of four candidates.

In what is already being called "Retirement Tuesday," word leaked yesterday that longtime Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut were choosing retirement over re-election bids. The Democratic bleeding wasn't limited to Washington: Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter has decided to not seek another term while Michigan Lt. Gov. John D. Cherry suddenly announced he would not be a candidate for governor this year. All this in a little more than 12 hours.

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The New Year began for Democrats in much the same way last year ended: In 2009's final months they endured a spate of House member retirement announcements while one representative, Alabama's Parker Griffin, defected to the Republican side.

The unexpected Senate retirements double to four the number of open Senate seats Democrats will have to defend this year. This loss of two Senate lawmakers-each with three decades of political experience-means Democrats likely won't have a supermajority of 60 votes this time next year. So Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has the next 12 months to use the Democrat's current razor thin 60-40 majority to follow through on an ambitious party agenda. Then the legislative sledding may get tougher.

"The Republican playing field has just expanded, and Democrats are going to have to go on the defensive in a lot of places they didn't expect to," John Ryder, chairman of the Republican National Committee's Redistricting Committee, told me. He noted that polling in the liberal stronghold of Massachusetts shows even that state's Senate race is tightening.

While losing unpopular and scandal-plagued Dodd may actually help Democrats in Connecticut keep that seat, Dorgan's seat will be contested in what is considered a strong Republican state. With North Dakota's popular GOP Gov. John Hoeven expected to enter the race, the state could likely fall into Republican hands.

Dodd-who has taken the lead in the healthcare debate since the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts-trailed potential GOP challengers in polls for much of last year.

As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Dodd continued to take heat for revelations that he received a sweetheart mortgage deal with Countrywide. Less than a third of Connecticut voters called him trustworthy. Dodd, announcing his retirement Wednesday, admitted, "I found myself in the toughest political shape of my career. This is my moment to step aside."

"Sen. Dodd's retirement is not surprising considering," said the National Republican Senatorial Committee's Amber Wilkerson Marchand.

But Dorgan's retirement did surprise lawmakers from both parties. This is a bigger blow to Democrats-many of whom expected Dorgan to win a tight race this November.

"I want to make time for some other priorities," said Dorgan, who added that he came to this conclusion during family discussions over the holidays. "And making a commitment to serve in the Senate for the next seven years does not seem like the right decision for me."

The year could not have started off any better for Republicans. The mood of the country seems to be swinging away from the policies of the congressional Democratic majority-and veteran lawmakers are reading these tea leaves. But mid-term elections are still almost exactly 10 months away: a lifetime in politics. As voters grapple with the country's direction, conservatives still must offer sound alternatives to the bigger government philosophies of Democrats.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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