The GOP's House of Cards

Retirements are curbing Republican hopes for a comeback.

FE_DA_071015house.jpg

Deborah Pryce and Dennis Hastert (behind her) are retiring.

By + More

New Mexico's Pete Domenici last week became the fifth Republican senator to announce his retirement since mid-January. Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, whose arrest in an airport men's room has embarrassed his party, is retiring, too. But Craig announced last week that he would serve out the remainder of his term, infuriating fellow Republicans. And the Senate isn't the GOP's only problem. The situation on the other side of the Capitol has drawn fewer headlines but is no less dramatic. A spate of retirement announcements in the House of Representatives has left the outlook for the Grand Old Party there looking equally bleak.

Within the past three weeks, there have been three retirements, bringing the number of House Republican incumbents jumping ship to nine. That means several districts that very likely would have stayed in GOP hands are up for grabs in 2008. With Democrats outnumbering Republicans 232 to 201, Republicans need to gain 16 seats to take control. But the exodus has dashed GOP hopes because the party will now have to divert its funds toward keeping those seats. "Republicans will have to take a few steps back before they can move forward," says David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. "Republicans will now be defending open seats."

And the party has other woes as well. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which focuses on fundraising for House races, has almost a 14-to-1 lead in cash on hand over its Republican counterpart, and a recent Gallup Poll showed Americans favor Democrats over Republicans by 15 percentage points. Those factors, combined with the new open seats, have Wasserman predicting that Democrats will gain from two to seven seats in the House in 2008.

Contests. The Midwest will be the key battleground. GOP Reps. Deborah Pryce of Ohio and Jim Ramstad of Minnesota will be retiring, as will Republicans like Rep. Jerry Weller, former Speaker Dennis Hastert, and Rep. Ray LaHood, all of Illinois. In fact, at least one third of Illinois's 19 House seats could be up for grabs next year, experts say. Hastert's and LaHood's departures were predicted, but Weller's was a surprise for many, and Democrats have been itching to contest the seat.

The Democratic Party has set its sights on winning the swing district left open by the impending exit of 14-year incumbent Pryce, who barely held on to her seat in the last election. And Democrats will most likely spend heavily to win the seat of eight-term incumbent Ramstad, who has seldom faced a serious challenge in his nine terms.

Other Republicans on their way out include Reps. Rick Renzi of Arizona, Duncan Hunter of California, and Charles Pickering of Mississippi. Analysts say more GOP farewells may be coming, as Republicans have discovered since the 2006 election that being in the minority isn't that much fun. Speculation centers on Rep. Ralph Regula of Ohio and Rep. C. W. Bill Young of Florida, though neither has said anything definitive.

While it's common to have a dozen or so congressional retirements each year, says Wasserman, usually they are spread more evenly between the two major parties. Only two Democrats say they will leave the House—Reps. Mark Udall of Colorado and Tom Allen of Maine. Both of them are looking to move over to the Senate. Given the GOP's current problems, perhaps they have a right to be optimistic.