Sen. Dodd Latest Democrat To Announce Retirement

Veteran Democratic Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut announced Wednesday he will retire at the end of this term. Dodd was expected to have a tough re-election fight. His departure and that of his Democratic colleague Byron Dorgan of South Dakota will test Senate Democrats in the 2010 elections.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

2010 just got tougher for Democrats now that two Democratic Senators have announced retirements. Today, Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut announced he's leaving after nearly 30 years in his seat. That's after a similar announcement last night from Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. In a few minutes we'll talk with Senator Dorgan about his decision.

First NPR's David Welna explains that those two departures could jeopardize the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority.

DAVID WELNA: It was only five months ago that Christopher Dodd summoned reporters to his Connecticut home to say he was being treated for prostate cancer and seeking a sixth term in the Senate.

Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): I'm running the reelection.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. DODD: Now I'll be a little leaner and a little meaner, but I'm running.

WELNA: Today, Dodd faced reporters again outside his front door. On this Feast of the Epiphany, he said he had had the insight that this country is still a work in progress.

Sen. DODD: And that is how I came to the conclusion that in the long sweep of American history there are moments for each elected public official to step aside and let someone else step up. This is my moment to step aside.

WELNA: Dodd insisted no single reason prompted him to step aside. But he did site his factors: the deaths of both a sister and fellow Senator Ted Kennedy last summer, his struggle with cancer and realizing that he's in what he called the toughest political shape of my career.

Sen. DODD: I'm very aware of my present political standing here at home in Connecticut. But it is equally clear that any certain prediction about an election victory or defeat nearly a year from now would be absurd.

WELNA: University of Connecticut political scientist Howard Reiter says Dodd hurt his re-election prospects with a series of bad political moves: from relocating his family to Iowa two years ago for a long shot run for president, to inserting language in a financial bailout bill that shielded bonuses for executives at insurance giant AIG. Reiter said Dodd's biggest mistake was failing for months to deliver promised documents on two home mortgages he'd taken out with Countrywide Financial, bolstering the perception that Dodd got a sweetheart deal from the lender.

Mr. HOWARD REITER (Political scientist, University of Connecticut): Instead of responding right away and clearing the issue, he basically stonewalled for months and months. And this was a kind of a tone deafness that we just simply aren't used to seeing in Dodd. He's a very cagey and skillful politician and for him to have missed the boat on that issue, it was very surprising.

WELNA: Dodd's father who also was a U.S. senator lost his Senate seat three years after being censured by the Senate for financial improprieties. Dodd appears determined to leave office on a high note by pushing through a financial regulatory makeover as chairman of the banking committee.

Sen. DODD: My service isn't over. I still have one year left on my contract with the people of Connecticut.

WELNA: At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs seemed confident Dodd could still deliver on a financial regulatory overhaul.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Press Secretary): Knowing Senator Dodd and the passionate advocate that he is, I think he will continue to work hard and want to get this done by the end of the year, as the president does, too.

WELNA: Meanwhile, the fight continues for what's now an open Senate seat in Connecticut. Former Republican Congressman Rob Simmons and wrestling entrepreneur Lynda McMahon are battling for the GOP nomination. And today the state's popular Democratic attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, announced he too will seek Dodd's seat. In North Dakota, it's less clear who will run for the seat Democrat Byron Dorgan is vacating. The state's popular GOP governor, John Hoeven, is one strong possibility. University of North Dakota political scientist Mark Jendrysik says Democrats face stiff odds for retaining the seat.

Mr. MARK JENDRYSIK (Political scientist, University of North Dakota): They have a thin bench but, you know, they just don't have anybody coming up behind who they can immediately slot in. They don't have anybody holding statewide elected office. They just don't have someone who's an obvious candidate.

WELNA: Which is why Dorgan's retirement is even more likely than Dodd's to dent the Democrats' 60-seat majority.

David Welna, NPR News, The Capitol.

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