For many Democratic representatives, hitting the golf course is more appealing than a grueling re-election fight.
In the past two weeks, two North Carolina Democrats decided to hang it up after seeing their districts redrawn to favor the GOP. Rep. Heath Shuler—the former Washington Redskins quarterback—and Rep. Brad Miller both announced their retirements. They join Oklahoma Rep. Dan Boren, Illinois Rep. Jerry Costello and Arkansas Rep. Mike Ross, along with seven other Democrats who have announced their plans to retire in 2012 rather than seek a second term.
Another six Democrats are leaving their seats to run for higher office. Add Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords, who miraculously survived a gunshot wound to the head last year, has already resigned, setting up another seat which Democrats will have to defend in an April special election. In total, 21 Democrats will be leaving their Congressional seats, compared with only 14 Republicans.
Many of these representatives are leaving crucial swing districts, which will be tough terrain for Democrats. The retirement wave complicates the message that Democrats have been putting out in recent weeks—that they have a realistic shot to re-take the House, only two years after losing it.
"Its obvious that the Blue Dogs are tired of following Nancy Pelosi's lead, and they've realized that retiring in strong Republican seats is the easiest way of ensuring she never becomes Speaker again," says Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "The competitive open seats they've created are making her goal of returning to power steeper by the day."
But Democrats aren't admitting that the retirements are diminishing their chances in 2012.
"Democrats knew North Carolina would be a challenging situation after redistricting," one Democratic operative says. "But we anticipated that, and we anticipated tremendous opportunities that more than balance that out, to keep on track and keep the House in play."
Those opportunities include California, where three Republicans are stepping down, and a fourth—Rep. David Dreier—is widely speculated to be contemplating retirement. California just completed a dramatic redistricting process which, for the first time, was governed by a non-partisan board. Illinois, whose redistricting process was controlled by a Democratic majority, is also an area where Democrats are predicting gains.
Political experts believe that the retirements will take their toll on the Democrats, but not totally diminish their chances.
"All told, retirements will probably cost the Democrats a few seats here and there," says Kyle Kondik, a political analyst with the University of Virginia. "I still believe that the Democrats have a small chance to retake the House, regardless of retirements. But they will almost certainly need help from President Obama at the top of the ticket to get over the finish line."
Despite taking a whipping in the past two years, Democrats have grown increasingly optimistic about their chances to hang on to the Senate and, perhaps, retake the House. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has noted polls showing Democrats winning generic matchups against Republicans, fundraising which is keeping pace with the Republicans, and statements from former Republican National Committee director Michael Steele that a Democratic takeover could be possible.
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