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Hanging 'Em Up: August Expected To Yield House Retirements

By Reid Wilson

As the House of Representatives adjourned for August recess, Republican and Democratic campaign committees braced for a rapid change of the 2008 battleground. The August after an election is historically a time when members of Congress who have contemplated retirements make up their mind, and the open seats they create will, in some way, alter the districts both parties' campaign committees decide to target the following year. This year, after losing their majority, it will be Republicans who feel the brunt of what could be a stampede to the exit.

"The recess period before an election year is a terrific time for a member to take a deep breath and think about their future," says Charlie Mahtesian, editor of the Almanac of American Politics. "If you're a Republican experiencing the minority for the first time in 12 years, the upcoming recess gives you an opportunity to reconsider whether you want to stick around," said Politico Congress writer Josh Kraushaar.

If a member will retire, August is when a campaign committee would like to hear about it; fifteen months is ample time for a candidate from the incumbent party to run a campaign. Late retirements hurt the GOP in 2006, Mathesian notes. While then-Representatives Tom DeLay and Bob Ney faced ethical trouble, they both represented relatively safe Republican seats, and neither ethical dilemma was a surprise. Had they announced their departures earlier, Republicans may have salvaged their seats. Congressman Peter Roskam, an Illinois freshman Republican, on the other hand, had plenty of time to prepare a campaign to replace Henry Hyde, who announced his retirement in early 2005.

The year after losing the majority, retirements from members of the new minority are common. In 1996, 28 Democrats decided against running for a second term, about twice the average rate. This year, some political watchers expect a dozen or more Republicans to announce their retirements. Those who would call it quits generally fit into one of three categories.

Older members, whose careers have stretched decades, are always a threat to retire. And after serving in the majority, members like Ohio's Ralph Regula, Texas' Ralph Hall, Maryland's Roscoe Bartlett and Florida's C.W. "Bill" Young may prefer to return home rather than hang around hoping to regain their senior positions. One question Mahtesian says members will have to ask themselves: "Is it reasonable to assume you're going to get back in the majority?" Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert has been the subject of retirement rumors for months, while California Congressman Elton Gallegly tried to retire in 2006 before being persuaded to run again in 2008.

Members with ethical issues could decide to quit as well, said Mahtesian. "The ethically tainted guys are going to come under so much pressure they're just going to have to step down." Alaska Rep. Don Young, who finds himself involved in the VECO Corp. scandal, is reportedly under investigation. Arizonan Rick Renzi and California's John Doolittle have had their homes raided by FBI agents in connection with other investigations.

Finally, some members of Congress face political issues as well. Louisiana Rep. Bobby Jindal is the leading candidate for Governor in Louisiana this year, creating the possibility of a caretaker to fill his seat should he win. Reps. Tom Davis, of Virginia, Richard Baker, also of Louisiana, and Steve King, of Iowa, could decide to run for Senate seats next year. On the other hand, Maryland's Wayne Gilchrest and Ohio's Jeanne Schmidt could face strong primary challenges from fellow Republicans, creating late open seats.

The phenomenon of August retirements is not limited to the House. Virginia Senator John Warner, who raised a paltry $500 in the first quarter of 2007, has said he will decide whether to run again by September. Idaho Senator Larry Craig and Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran have yet to announce their re-election plans either. Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel fits into the political issues category; he faces what appears to be a strong primary challenge from Attorney General Jon Bruning and others, and he continues to contemplate some sort of White House bid. And, like his colleague in the House, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens is involved in the VECO scandal; his home was recently raided by FBI and IRS agents.

Democrats can't hope to pick up every open seat, or even to compete for each seat, though. The Cook Political Report's Partisan Voting Index, which measures a district's tilt, indicates Democrats' best chances for pickups would be Bill Young's Florida 10 (D+1), Regula's Ohio 16 (R+4) and Davis' Virginia 11 (R+1).

Hastert's seat, along with Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood, who has already announced his retirement, are both R+5 seats, meaning Democrats would have to benefit from a strong candidate and a strong national wave, similar to 2006, when Democrats won seven seats with less favorable PVIs than LaHood's, to win. Other seats, like Jindal's (R+18), Lewis' (R+9), Doolittle's (R+11) and Bartlett's (R+13) are farther out of reach.

Luckily for Democrats, the three members who have already indicated they will not return next year - Colorado's Mark Udall and Maine's Tom Allen, who are running for Senate, and Illinois' Luis Gutierrez - all boast strong Democratic registrations. Potential Democratic retirements, like Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson, who faces ethical challenges, and Indiana Rep. Julia Carson, who has long suffered from health problems, would also come in strong Democratic seats.

Because an incumbent is better able to raise money necessary to defend his seat than a challenger is, open seats that are in play will require a greater investment from the campaign committees. If Republicans are forced to defend more open seats than Democrats, they may feel the cash crunch. Through June, the DCCC had $19 million in the bank, far more than the NRCC's $2 million. If that cash advantage holds, Democrats could simply outspend Republicans in seats where they would not otherwise find opportunities.

As members arrive at home this recess, many consider staying there after 2008. Some will decide to step down; others will decide, or be convinced, to stick it out for one more term. August, traditionally a month when decisions are made public, will change the outlook for both parties, potentially dramatically. If the NRCC gets its way, few will take a pass on a 2008 race. If the DCCC gets lucky, it could find an additional ten seats, or more, in play next year.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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