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Bayh, Gregg, Voinovich and Dorgan/Associated Press photos

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Congress | Moderates are retiring, but that doesn't necessarily mean a more polarized politics

Issue: "Fighting poverty," March 13, 2010

WASHINGTON-When Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., stood with his wife and two teenage sons to announce his retirement on President's Day, people from Indiana to the halls of the Capitol mourned the loss of what they called a moderate voice in Washington.

Bayh himself mourned what he views as a decaying institution, saying, "I do not love Congress." Observers suspected he also did not love the prospect of a tough race in the fall against former Sen. Dan Coats, who had announced his intention to run against Bayh days earlier.

But if "moderate" is defined as someone who can appeal to voters across party lines, then the two-term senator isn't the only moderate getting out of politics: Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., one of the few Republicans offered a Cabinet post in the Obama administration, which he refused, announced his retirement late last year. Another moderate, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., though he faced a difficult reelection, cited "rancor" in Washington as one reason why he decided in January to retire. And Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, who voted Feb. 24 in favor of a $15 billion jobs bill, is getting out of politics, too.

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One Democratic strategist doesn't buy the idea that partisanship is driving politicians out, saying these seasoned veterans have seen worse. The strategist, who asked not to be named because of his ongoing work in election campaigns, called to mind then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich carrying on an affair with a staffer while leading the impeachment efforts against former President Bill Clinton for perjury relating to his own sexual behavior: "I mean, if ugliness, hypocrisy, and partisanship were really the big things getting people to retire, they'd have retired a while ago."

In the House, four Blue Dog Democrats who won conservative districts have decided to retire, and another, Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama, switched parties to join the GOP. The exit of candidates who can win swing states is worse news for Democrats because their majority is a result of wooing independent voters.

But the departure of these moderates doesn't mean that Congress will be filled only with people firmly on the left or right-only that more moderates may come dressed as Republicans. If Republican Mark Kirk wins the Senate race in Illinois and Republican Mike Castle wins the Senate seat in Delaware, they will expand the ranks of Senate moderates. Republican Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida, though he faces a battle against Marco Rubio for the Republican nomination for the Senate race, would be another moderate legislator.

And because partisanship has become such an ugly brand on Washington, campaign strategists say that almost every candidate will run this year as a "moderate," or someone willing to reach out to opponents in the public square.

Blue November?

By Emily Belz

Democrats have to entertain the possibility of losing the majority in the Senate. If Republicans keep their open seats in Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Ohio (most of which they expect to hold), they would need to win 10 more seats to take the majority. Seven are within Republican grasp.

Indiana, a red state, is likely to vote in a Republican to Bayh's seat-though the most-talked-about potential Democrat in the race, Rep. Brad Ellsworth, stands further to the right than Bayh.

In North Dakota, with Dorgan's retirement, popular Republican governor John Hoeven is expected to win handily. In Arkansas, moderate Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln may be retired by popular vote. In polls she is behind two Republican challengers, Rep. John Boozman and state Sen. Gilbert Baker, by about 20 points.

Vice President Joe Biden's old seat in Delaware is likely to go to GOP congressman Mike Castle. President Obama's old seat in Illinois could go to a Republican, too-Rep. Mark Kirk. Polls show his race against Democrat Alexi Giannoulias to be a toss-up.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could lose his seat in Nevada to a Republican. He has two formidable opponents already in former state senator Sue Lowden and businessman Danny Tarkanian. The state has the second-highest jobless rate in the nation, and Reid recently shot down a bipartisan jobs bill in the Senate.

And the Democrat named to fill Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's Senate seat, Michael Bennet, has a fierce fight ahead in Colorado against a former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, Republican Andrew Romanoff.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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