WASHINGTON – And the retirements keep rolling in.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) this month became the most recent lawmaker to announce he would not seek another term in Congress. In fact Coburn, battling a recurrence of cancer – which he maintains is not related to his decision – is stepping down two years early, setting the stage for a special election this fall. Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) already has made clear his desire to run for the seat.
Coburn’s decision brings to eight the number of lawmakers who will not return to the Senate in 2015. And the number of House incumbents who decided to skip the 114th Congress – through retirement or, like Lankford, the intent to seek higher office – has reached 30.
The reasons vary. Three House Democrats – Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa, Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii and Rep. Gary Peters of Michigan – are forfeiting their seats to run for the Senate. Two others, Michael Michaud of Maine and Allyson Y. Schwartz of Pennsylvania, are running for governor of their respective states.
As for the remaining 16 House Democrats, the decision to leave Capitol Hill could be attributed to the realization that the party is destined to spend at least another two years in the minority, a position that offers few opportunities to advance their agenda. Republicans currently maintain a 233-200 edge with two vacancies, meaning Democrats would have to pick up at least 17 seats in the November election to reclaim the majority – unlikely since historically the party that controls the White House loses seats in off-year elections.
There are actually more Republicans – 22 – who are giving up their House seats than Democrats. Most come from safe GOP districts – the result of the 2010 reapportionment – so it’s unlikely many of the slots will slide to the Democrats. Of those leaving, 12 are running for the Senate – Lankford, Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Rep. Bill Cassidy,of Louisiana, Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Rep. Steve Daines of Montana, Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia, Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia and Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas.
Of the 10 Republicans retiring, several, like Rep. Howard Coble of North Carolina, who is 82, are well into their Social Security eligibility years. But others, including Rep. Buck McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee who generally is considered a political moderate, may be hearing footsteps from the right, deciding to step aside rather than face a challenge from challengers backed by the Tea Party.
On the Senate side, Republicans stand a good chance of assuming control of the chamber for the first time since 2006. Democrats currently maintain a 55-45 advantage – including two independents who are aligned with the caucus – but have more seats up in 2014, 21 as opposed to 15 for the GOP.
Senate Democrats are hit hard by retirements this go-round, some representing states that are almost certain to turn to Republicans. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) have decided to step aside. All with the possible exception of Johnson, who in 2006 suffered bleeding in the brain as the result of a cerebral arteriovenous malformation that has left him somewhat debilitated, would have been favored to win re-election.
Now they are up for grabs. Of those five seats, three – West Virginia, Montana and South Dakota – are in states that President Obama lost by substantial margins in his successful 2012 re-election. Those three are considered likely Republican pick-ups.
Senate Republicans face only three retirements – Coburn, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska. All hail from states former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, carried handily. In fact, the field offers few opportunities for potential Democratic pick-ups. The Georgia seat left open by the Chambliss retirement likely will pit one of the state’s three congressmen vying for the seat – Broun, Gingrey or Kingston – against Michelle Nunn, an executive with a nonprofit who is the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat who still attracts respect from the state’s voters.
But perhaps the best possibility can be found in Kentucky, where Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to face a stern test from Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state with a proven political pedigree. McConnell, who nonetheless remains the favorite, must first survive a challenge from Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, who carries Tea Party support.
Meanwhile, a handful of Democrats running for re-election in states carried by Romney are seen as vulnerable. Several Republicans – Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell, onetime U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller and Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan – are all in against Alaska Sen. Mark Begich. The race between incumbent Arkansas Democrat Sen. Mark Pryor and the likely GOP nominee, Rep. Tom Cotton, is at best a toss-up for Democrats.
Perhaps less exposed but still iffy are Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), expected to face Rep. Bill Cassidy, and Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who has attracted a host of GOP foes, including state House Speaker Thom Tillis.
Republicans will have to capture nearly all the open and toss-up seats to wrest control of the upper chamber.
Over in the House it appears that few of the open seats – perhaps as few as eight — are likely to change hands, owing in large measure to the partisan district lines drawn by the state legislatures. Four of them are currently owned by Republicans, all of whom are considered moderates. Tea Party candidates on the Republican side might render them more difficult to retain.
In Iowa, the retirement of GOP Rep. Tom Latham, who represents a district that stretches west from Des Moines to Council Bluffs, has drawn strong candidates from both sides but is considered a potential Democratic pick-up since Obama carried the region twice, by four points in 2012.
Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, state Sen. Jack Whitver and West Des Moines Mayor Steve Gaer are among the Republicans mentioned. State Sen. Janet Petersen, state Sen. Mike Gronstahl and former state senator Staci Appel are lining up on the Democratic side.