With 3 Big Retirements, Are Democrats Bailing Out? : It's All Politics In a 14-hour period, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut (above), Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter all said they don't plan to seek re-election in 2010. The news compounds an already-challenging election year for Democrat...
NPR logo With 3 Big Retirements, Are Democrats Bailing Out?

With 3 Big Retirements, Are Democrats Bailing Out?

The headlines of the past day and a half, no matter how much Democrats would love to spin them, don't look especially good. Sen. Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, announces he will retire. Gov. Bill Ritter, Democrat of Colorado, says he won't run again. And now comes the news that Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who chairs the Senate Banking Committee, declared at noon today that he will pack it in after five terms -- longer than any Connecticut senator in history.

Yesterday afternoon also came the news that Michigan Lt. Gov. John Cherry, the clear Democratic frontrunner to succeed term-limited Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), withdrew from the race.

And all this comes a week after a freshman Democratic congressman from northern Alabama -- Parker Griffith -- switched to the GOP. It's the first time in history that the district will be represented by a Republican in the House.

What to make of all this?

"Democrats Are Dropping Like Flies," was the header of the ABC News political tipsheet, The Note. And, quite honestly, it's hard to recall when back-to-back-to-back-to-back retirements were announced in such a short period of time.

But let's take them individually and see where it leaves us.

The big shocker of all this, in my view, was Dorgan's announcement late yesterday afternoon. I never saw it coming, nor did most of his Senate colleagues. He has griped from time to time about how the Senate has stopped functioning -- NPR's David Welna yesterday in a news spot replayed a most prescient part of a conversation he had with Dorgan where he talked about his dissatisfaction with the way things were going. But walking away from re-election? Didn't think it was possible. North Dakota may be a red state -- it voted for the Democratic presidential candidate just once since 1936 -- but its two Democratic senators, Dorgan and Kent Conrad, are well-liked. In fact, the last Republican to win a Senate seat in N.D. came in 1980.

But with Dorgan departing, Republicans have an excellent shot at taking the seat. John Hoeven, who holds a title that has become increasingly rare these days -- "popular governor" -- says he is very seriously considering getting in the race. The gov., who won a third term in 2008 with 74 percent of the vote, would be the frontrunner were he to run. Democrats would likely turn to Earl Pomeroy, the state's sole representative in the House.

UPDATE: Real Clear Politics cites Democratic sources saying Pomeroy will not run for the Senate and instead will stay in the House.

Another shock, though in some respects it shouldn't have been, was today's announcement by Dodd.

After 35 years of representing the people of Connecticut in the United States Congress, I will not be a candidate for re-election this November. ...

There have been times when my positions and actions have caused some of you to question that confidence. I regret that, but it is equally important that you know I never wavered in my determination to do the best job for our state and nation. I love my job as your Senator, I always have, and still do. However, this past year has raised some challenges that insisted I take stock of my life. ...

I came to the conclusion that, in the long sweep of American history, there are moments for each elected public servant to step aside and let someone else step up.

This is my moment to step aside.

Yes, Dodd's numbers were perhaps the worst of any Senate incumbent seeking re-election. Yes, he has been under fire for an alleged sweetheart mortgage deal from Countrywide Financial, for helping write the bill that protected bonuses for AIG executives, for being too close to the insurance industry, and for moving his entire family to Des Moines in 2008 when he was running for President of Iowa -- a disastrous decision, as it turned out, one that provoked a backlash back in the Nutmeg State.

But, despite all this, he insisted he was in the race to stay. He was actively raising money. President Obama and the Senate Democratic leadership made sure he was in the spotlight whenever there was a breakthrough on health-care legislation, on which Dodd (in the absence of Ted Kennedy) worked very strenuously last year. He may not have seen eye-to-eye with the administration on how to reform the nation's banking system, but that may have been more because of electoral pressures.

And so, when the bulletin came that said Dodd was going to retire, I reacted with surprise.

But there is a big difference between the Dorgan and Dodd decisions, at least electorally. Dodd was well known in the state. His father was a long time Dem figure in Connecticut, serving two terms in the House and two in the Senate before being censured (in 1967) for misusing campaign funds. (In fact, one of the reasons Chris Dodd got into politics -- and why I thought he would stay in the race -- was his long desire to redeem the reputation of his father.)

But Dodd's numbers stunk, and they showed no sign of recovering. In the eyes of many Democrats, and perhaps ultimately by Dodd himself, he was not in any shape to revive his candidacy. And so with him gone -- and today's announcement at 2:30 p.m. that Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D), the state's most popular official, will run -- the Democrats may have rescued the seat from a GOP takeover.

On the gubernatorial front, the decision by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter to leave after only one term was another stunner. As much as anyone, Ritter was responsible for the Democratic trend in Colorado in recent years. Not long ago, the state had two Republican senators and a GOP governor; now all have been replaced by Democrats. Five of the seven House members are Democrats.

But Ritter hurt himself with his fellow Dems when he picked Michael Bennet to fill the Senate seat vacated by now-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. It was a move that clearly split the party. Former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who had been expecting the appointment, was so livid that he first thought about challenging Ritter in this year's primary and then switched to taking on Bennet himself. The Democratic family feud was threatening the party's control over both the governorship and the Senate seat. With Ritter leaving, Romanoff may now decide to run for governor -- though there is also talk about a candidacy by Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper.

Republicans insist that the Dems are in turmoil, that Romanoff and Hickenlooper are both big-city liberals who can't win statewide. That may or may not be true. But the likely GOP candidate, former Rep. Scott McInnis, hasn't run for office since 2002.

For the longest time, the argument -- specious, in my view -- was that President Obama was trying to do too much, too fast. But if indeed Democrats are bailing, or are heading for a bad election year, or both, then the Obama intent makes sense. He may never have as many Democratic votes in Congress as he does now.