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Senate Retirements Hint at Shifting Political Landscape

January 6, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Two veteran Democratic senators will not be coming back after this year. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut announced his decision Wednesday, hours after Byron Dorgan of North Dakota did the same. Gwen Ifill talks to reporters for context on the bigger political fallout.
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JIM LEHRER: Two veteran Democratic senators will not be coming back after this year. Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut announced his decision today, hours after Byron Dorgan of North Dakota did the same.

Gwen Ifill has the story.

GWEN IFILL: After 35 years in Washington, Senator Dodd went home today to Connecticut to announce his decision not to run again.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD, D-Conn.: There are moments for each elected public official to step aside and let someone else step up. This is my moment to step aside.

Well, the committee will come to order. We’re here this morning to consider the nomination of Ben Bernanke.

GWEN IFILL: At 66, Dodd is chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. But 2009 was a long year for him, and his reelection prospects had recently grown shaky.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD: I lost a beloved sister in July and, in August, Ted Kennedy. I battled cancer over the summer. And, in the midst of all of this, I found myself in the toughest political shape of my career.

None of these events or circumstances, either individually or collectively, is the cause of my decision not to seek reelection. Yet, together, these challenges have given me pause to take stock and to ask questions that too few of us in elected public life ever do: Why am I running?

GWEN IFILL: News of Dodd’s decision came on the heels of Senator Dorgan’s statement that he plans to retire, too. Like Dodd, he was facing a potentially tight race in the fall. But his decision caught political observers by surprise.

In a statement, he said, “Although I still have a passion for public service and enjoy my work in the Senate, I have other interests and I have other things I would like to pursue outside of public life.”

The twin retirement announcements endanger Democrats’ prospects for maintaining their veto-proof 60-vote margin in the Senate.

GOV. JOHN HOEVEN, R-N.D.: Surprised. I didn’t expect it. I really don’t think anybody did.

GWEN IFILL: A strong Republican candidate is more likely to step up in North Dakota, where popular Governor John Hoeven is considering a run. In Connecticut, a popular Democrat, State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, announced he will run for Dodd’s seat.

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, attorney general, Connecticut: I have not been pressured to take this step.

REPORTER: Have people been asking you to take this step?

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: I have received a lot of encouragement. And I emphasize a lot. I have two dead cell phones right now.

WOMAN: Three-fifths of the senators duly chosen and sworn…

GWEN IFILL: Five Democrats and six Republicans will not seek reelection to the U.S. Senate this year. In the House, 10 Democrats have announced they’re leaving, and an 11th, Alabama Congressman Parker Griffith, has switched parties.

But 14 House Republicans have said they will not run again. Party leaders are worried about state races, too. In Michigan, Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Cherry decided against a run for that state’s top job. And, in Colorado, Democratic Governor Bill Ritter plans to step down.

Here to discuss the fallout from these high-profile decisions are two who specialize in politics, writ large and small, Amy Walter, editor of The National Journal’s political daily, Hotline, and Chris Cillizza reports on politics for The Washington Post.

Amy, different men, different states. Different reasons?

AMY WALTER, editor in chief, The Hotline: Different reasons, but somewhat similar. Both had been there for a very long time. Both seemed to be looking at competitive races. And both said, you know what? It’s time to go out on top.

I think what is interesting, too, when you look at where these rank competitively, basically, what you did in the Dorgan situation, you took what was a seat that was really not on the table, at least not yet, and you put that basically into what is right now, I would say, a lean-Republican column. And you took the Connecticut seat, which was leaning toward Republicans, and you put that more into a more safely Democratic column.

So, they essentially just swapped out each other. But there’s a psychological toll that this takes, too. So, we can talk structurally about what it means, which is sort of neutral, although there are certainly more Democratic seats in danger than Republican.

But, fundamentally, what does this say to other Democrats, House and Senate, but mostly in the House, who may be looking at what they want to do in 2010 as well? And they see two longtime well-respected members saying, it’s not really worth it for me to come back. Do they want to come back themselves?

GWEN IFILL: Chris, perhaps my favorite line in Chris Dodd’s announcement today was when he said that many politicians will tell you they’re quitting for their family, but that’s not what he was doing.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, The Washington Post: Right.

I felt that — I often say, Gwen, I think, that one of the best speeches a politician typically gives is his or her last one, because they have the freedom to say what they actually think, as opposed to what they think people want to hear.

I thought that was a great acknowledgement from someone who has been in the political game a very long time. I think Amy is exactly right. There’s a macroanalysis, here which is essentially a one-for-one swap that Amy detailed. The — I’m sorry — that’s the microanalysis.

The macroanalysis, the big picture here, is that these come at a time when the Democrats are nervous, as you mentioned, Parker Griffith in Alabama switching parties, in late November and December, four Democratic House members deciding not to run for reelection, each in competitive districts.

It’s the cumulative weight of all of that. If Senators Dodd and Dorgan, whether they did it on a single day, or whether they did it over a month, retired, those are, in a vacuum, not that bad. But the broad effect of all of these things happening, the House retirements, the party switch, and now, in addition to the senators retiring, Bill Ritter, and you mentioned John Cherry, all of that at once has an effect to make already nervous members not sure whether what they should do about 2010 even more nervous and even more on the fence.

GWEN IFILL: First, let’s talk state by state for a moment.

Chris, I want to start with you, because you’re from the state of Connecticut.

CHRIS CILLIZZA: You bet. Proud.

GWEN IFILL: So, perhaps you can fill in for me what this means that Richard Blumenthal is lying in wait and what — whether there are Republicans out there to challenge him.

CHRIS CILLIZZA: Richard Blumenthal was elected attorney general in 1990. And, since almost roughly that time, he has coveted a Senate seat.

He has been courted many times. He’s taken a pass. Obviously, you’ve had Senators Dodd and Lieberman in those offices for quite some time. He is by the far the state’s most popular politician, if you believe scads of independent polling.

The question is, he is not someone who has had a real race in roughly two decades. He will have a real race here. As Amy mentioned, he is clearly the favorite in this election. It is Connecticut. It is a reliably Democratic state. Senator Dodd’s problems were his known. They were not about the underlying demographics of the state.

Richard Blumenthal enters this race as the favorite. That said, Rob Simmons, a former congressman from eastern Connecticut, my home district, actually, as well as Linda McMahon, a wealth businesswoman who has pledged to spend upwards of $50 million on her campaign, are still in this race on the Republican side.

Is it better today for Democrats than it was yesterday with Chris Dodd in the race? Absolutely. Is it entirely over? Let’s see how Richard Blumenthal performs on the campaign trail in the short term.

GWEN IFILL: Amy, you are not, for the record, from North Dakota, but…

AMY WALTER: No.

GWEN IFILL: But — and North Dakota is not a reliably Democratic state, like Connecticut is. So, what is the fallout there?

AMY WALTER: Right, very, very different.

You know, you’re looking at a state that is very red, although they do tend to send Democrats to Washington. The delegation there right now is two — all Democratic, right, the sitting congressman, as well as the two senators.

That belies the underlying Republican nature of the state and the fact that even most of the statewide elected officials are Republican. The other Democrat there, Earl Pomeroy, was mentioned early on as a potential replacement for — for Senator Dorgan. He is not going to run.

So, what you’re looking at is a very thin bench for Democrats, a place where, obviously, John McCain did well, George Bush did well. This is not a place where Democrats tend to thrive at the federal level. So, I think what you’re looking at, if Hoeven decides to get in, which everybody thinks he is going to do, you’re looking at a very easy pickup here for Republicans.

I also agree with Chris on the Connecticut situation. Not only does — has Blumenthal not had a race before, but, as Chris pointed out, he’s had — he’s been attorney general for 20 years. He has a long record there. And that — in a year where people are saying they don’t really like the establishment, they don’t really like incumbents, that can be some fodder for the Republicans.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s take this back to Washington for a moment, Amy. If you’re Majority Leader, Democratic Leader Harry Reid…

AMY WALTER: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: … and you lose two senators like this on one day, what are you thinking?

AMY WALTER: You’re thinking, I have to get a lot done before the end of the year, because the odds of me keeping 60 are becoming less and less likely.

And that might be an — that might give some incentive, then, for some of these Democrats who may be sitting on the fence in terms of whether they’re going to support or not support certain pieces of legislation to say, here’s our last, best chance. If we want to put all of these pieces of legislation we have been talking about for years, certainly something like health care, this is our time to get it done. We can’t expect to have this kind of margin a year from now.

GWEN IFILL: But, Chris, Democrats have been saying today that, you know, more Republicans are retiring than — than Democrats. So, how do you add that up and say this is bad news for Democrats?

CHRIS CILLIZZA: Well, Gwen, all retirements are not created equal. You know, you can’t just look at the raw numbers and say, well, 14 on the Republican side in the House, 10 on the Democratic side in the House.

There are seats on the Republican side — I will give you an example. South Carolina’s 3rd District, it’s currently held by Gresham Barrett. He is running for governor. That is a seat that no Democrat is going to win in any circumstances.

That is not the same, for example, as Bart Gordon in central Tennessee, a Democrat in a seat that John McCain got 60-plus percent of the vote. Those two are not equal. They’re both retirements, but Bart Gordon’s retirement is significantly more problematic for Democrats and significantly more symbolic of a conservative — a moderate to conservative Democrat worried about his electoral prospects.

So, raw numbers tell you some of the story, but they don’t tell you all of the story.

GWEN IFILL: Does this mean that Republicans are clicking their heels together, Amy?

AMY WALTER: They are definitely very happy today because, again, the story be, even though we just described the micro piece not changing all that much, the macro piece continues to move forward as a, boy, Democrats are having a tough time. They’re running out of Washington. They don’t want to be here anymore. They can’t really do well governing.

The question is, can Democrats really turn around and establish something in 2010 to be able to run on, to have a message that says, look, we got all this stuff accomplished for the American public; we’re going to — we’re happy to run on this message, and we’re going to be able to hold on to our majorities…

GWEN IFILL: And, for both of you, you know as well as anyone that no — that the worst time for most first-term presidents is that big first midterm election.

AMY WALTER: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: So, let’s — starting with you, Amy, let’s talk about what this means for President Obama. Is this going to make life tougher for him?

AMY WALTER: Well, already, life was looking pretty tough because of the fact that Democrats had picked up so many seats in 2006 and 2008. They had so many more vulnerabilities just going into this contest.

It’s also interesting the fact that, you know, President Obama ran on this post-partisan message, and the reality is, and what voters have seen, of course, is that there is no such thing as post-partisanship. So, many of these members of Congress are sort of taking that blowback, right, that, here’s what the president campaigned on. It’s not taking place here. You broke the promises that the president made.

They’re going to suffer the consequences of that. The president’s approval rating also very important to look at. Traditionally, any time a president coming into his first midterm election under 50 percent of the vote has big losses, especially in the House.

GWEN IFILL: Chris.

CHRIS CILLIZZA: You know, history would suggest, Gwen, that we’re looking at 15 to 20 seats in the House, two to four to five seats in the Senate.

I think that’s a good barometer. I think that, if you see go over that number, if you see Republican gains in the House 25, 30, 35, then I think we can legitimately draw some conclusions that voters were not happy with the direction, not just the president, but the Democratic-led Congress took the nation.

Anything short of that, I would guess the Obama administration will declare a success, and probably rightly so. As Amy pointed out, Democrats, especially in the House and to a certain extent in the Senate, are maxed out. They control many seats that probably, in a neutral political year, which 2006 and 2008 were not, they would never have won, places — southern Alabama, northern Mississippi, Idaho. These are not typically friendly Democratic areas. The pendulum is clearly going to swing back toward Republicans in 2010. The question is, how far does it swing?

GWEN IFILL: Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post, Amy Walter of The Hotline, thank you both very much.

AMY WALTER: Thank you.

CHRIS CILLIZZA: Thanks, Gwen.