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Senate Retirements Could Be Crucial in Upcoming Battle for Political Control

April 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Montana's Max Baucus is the eighth senator to announce he won't seek re-election. How will these retirements shape the fight for seats and the political landscape? Gwen Ifill gets analysis from Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report.
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GWEN IFILL: Now: new developments in the upcoming battle for control of the Senate.

Montana Democrat Max Baucus surprised Capitol Hill today by announcing he will not seek reelection when his term ends next year. That makes him the eighth senator, and the sixth Democrat, to step aside. The two Republicans hold safe red seats in Nebraska and Georgia. And three of the Democrats are from states President Obama carried last fall. But the rest are tossups that may cost Democrats control of the Senate in 2014.

Plus, four more incumbent Democrats from North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alaska are considered vulnerable. So, can one senator’s decision change the political landscape?

For that, we turn to Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report.

Good to have you both here.

What’s the answer to the question, Stu?

STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Yes, I think it changes the math a little bit.

There are four seats right off the top that Republicans are very optimistic about, two open in South Dakota and West Virginia, and then the two Democratic senators from the South, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Getting beyond that four is the challenge. It’s not to say the Republicans will win any or all of those, but they have a pretty good chance.

So the question is can they broaden the playing field? Montana is an important addition. They need to put these other seats, as you mentioned, Alaska, North Carolina, into play.

GWEN IFILL: And Max Baucus is no backbencher.

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: No, he’s the chairman of a very, very important Finance Committee. And he’s been around for 30 years.

That’s what you’re seeing with so many of these folks who are retiring. They have been committee chairmen. They have been in Congress for 30 or more years. Actually, the interesting thing about open seats is no party really wants to have an open seat. Right? They are usually are tougher to defend.

But in the case of Montana, it actually may be a better situation for Democrats, if Democrats are able to get the candidate that they’re all talking about right now, Brian Schweitzer, the former governor of that state, left office very popular. He is the quintessential Montana Democrat.

GWEN IFILL: And are they going after him?

AMY WALTER: Oh, they most certainly will be going after him. If they get — if Schweitzer is in that position, he runs as a governor, not as a 30-year incumbent with a long voting record, especially on some more controversial votes like the health care legislation.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Not as a Washington figure, but as a good old boy.

AMY WALTER: Exactly.

STUART ROTHENBERG: He’s very charismatic and very Montana.

GWEN IFILL: He knows how to rock a bolo tie.

AMY WALTER: He does know how to rock a bolo tie.

GWEN IFILL: He does.

But let’s talk about other retirements. In a more general sense, what is tipping or could be tipping the balance this time?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I think there are a number of individual reasons.

For some of them, it’s health. Jay Rockefeller, it’s age and Health, Tim Johnson, obviously health. I think for Mike Johanns, the Republican from Nebraska, a younger man in his early ’60s, I’m not sure the Senate was an ideal fit for Johanns. But for a lot of these, as Amy pointed out, a lot of these members are very senior. Five of the eight are over 70.

Five of the eight have served five terms or more. So, you know, there are cycles in American politics. And the Democrats are hitting retirements in a particularly difficult class, at not an ideal time for them.

AMY WALTER: And that’s what — politics is all about timing.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

AMY WALTER: And Republicans are hoping that the third time is the charm here.

2010, 2012, Stu and I would have come in here and said, boy, the map looks really bad for Democrats, they could lose control of the Senate. And then those years unfolded. And of course 2010 was the year of the Tea Party, but it was also the year where Republicans nominated terrible candidates in states they were supposed to win. 2012, we, of course, had the infamous Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. So there were five seats essentially that Republicans lost because they just simply had terrible candidates.

GWEN IFILL: But are there any open — any — any Republican seats being vacated where Republicans are at a disadvantage?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Only — not at a disadvantage.

I suppose — I mean, there is a scenario for Democrats to compete in Georgia, a very crowded Republican field. If one of the less broadly acceptable Republicans like Congressman Paul Broun, for example, were to be the nominee, I think Democrats would think we have an opportunity.

They are recruiting candidates. They’re recruiting either Congressman Barrow of Georgia, a Democrat, is a — has proven to be a very strong candidate as a member of the House. And I believe they’re recruiting Sam Nunn’s daughter as a possible candidate. So the Democrats are trying to put a good candidate in play in Georgia, should the Republicans self-destruct.

GWEN IFILL: So Democrats are hoping that they get another — a revisitation of the luck they had last time, which is the Republicans shoot themselves in the foot.

AMY WALTER: Exactly, even in states where they are on defense.

Democrats are definitely playing defense this year. They got to play a little offense in 2012. They’re not so lucky this year. 2016 looks great for them if they want to wait that long. But they have to hope that, in a place like Alaska, for example, there could be a competitive primary where the — quote, unquote — “wrong candidate” comes out, so that you get a situation like 2010 where the weaker candidate wins a Republican primary, giving a Democrat a chance to hold a tough seat.

GWEN IFILL: If you are a second-term president about to enter the lagging days of your power and you are losing people in your party in the Senate, how — what do you do about that? How does the president begin to position himself so that he’s not at a complete advantage, as he has all these big legacy-making domestic issues lining up?

AMY WALTER: Well, he has to — on the one hand, there’s not much that he can don’t do about any of these.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

AMY WALTER: Trying to keep some of them there was not going to be an issue.

But for so many of these red state Democrats, this is the great irony. Whether they’re running as incumbents or whether for an open seat, they are going to spend their entire campaign running away from the president. So, actually, you know what they’d like from him is to not talk to them or to not make their lives that much harder. Certainly, the gun vote was one of those votes many of them didn’t want to have to take. And they’re hoping there aren’t going to be that many more on the docket.

GWEN IFILL: Is this just midterm politics as normal, as usual, or this an unusually high level of defections?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, we have had a number of retirements in the past few cycles, and so this isn’t that much out of the ordinary.

My initial reaction was, it was. And then I went back and looked, and it is. But it’s still important. And this gets right to I think the heart of your point. How — the outlook for the Senate in 2014 starts to really kick in, in terms of legislative politics in the Senate at the end of this year and then certainly next year, because if the Republicans think we’re going to pick up four, five, maybe six Senate seats, we just have to hang in there, hang tough, not give the president any victories, and then he’s going to have to deal with us after the Senate, that is going to change the dynamic.

And to the extent to which Republicans are at all cooperative, if four or five months from now, six months from now, they figure we’re in a position we’re going to gain seats, they are going to be less — less cooperative.

GWEN IFILL: On the other hand, isn’t there something good to be said about fresh blood? We keep saying people stay in Washington too long, that this is a chance to mix things up.

AMY WALTER: Well, so we have been saying that for a while. And there’s always been talk about term limits being good to flush things out.

If you look at the Senate in 2015, at least 49 members of the Senate will have been elected since 2008. If you look in the House, 40 percent of the House has been elected since 2010. There’s been an incredible amount of turnover. And what it has done is actually polarized the Congress more …

GWEN IFILL: Even more.

AMY WALTER: … rather than bringing it together.

GWEN IFILL: Oh, joy.

Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report, Stu Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report, thank you both very much.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Thanks, Gwen.