Democrats' election woes: Expectations crumble as retirements begin to mount

Democratic election expectations were crumbling Monday after a leading Senate recruit declined to run and another lawmaker announced his retirement.

Rep. Marion Berry’s (D-Ark.) departure and Beau Biden’s (D) decision not to pursue the upper chamber came after Democrats said they expected the opposite. And now the party, which has said it doesn’t expect lots of retirements, is facing the possibility of several more.

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It is the latest bad news for Democrats in a cycle with a growing number of open seats and candidates bowing out. Berry became the sixth House Democrat to retire from politics, and all of those seats appear to be GOP pickup opportunities.

Republicans also have a list of Democratic members they’re encouraging to step down, including Reps. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), John Spratt (D-S.C.),

Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Baron Hill (D-Ind.), among others.

But unless these and several other Democrats decide to leave, it will be tough for Republicans to win the 41 seats they need to regain the majority in the House.

Republicans will be favored to win Berry’s district, which went 59-38 for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008.

As for the Delaware Senate seat, Republican Rep. Mike Castle, a former governor, remains popular in the state and raised a solid $1.1 million in the fourth quarter.

Republicans seized on the Democratic setback Monday.

“As we saw in Massachusetts last week, voters clearly stated that these seats belong to the people — not to either political party or dynasty,” said Colin Reed, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).

Democrats had fought back against reports in recent days that Berry and Biden were eyeing the exits, but within a day or two, each made it official.

The party faced a similar situation with Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), who also said prior to his retirement that he expected to run for reelection.

Berry, 67, didn’t yet face a top opponent, and he cited health concerns in his announcement. But he also alluded to the same political difficulties mentioned by Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) in his retirement announcement earlier this month.

Berry told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that Democratic leaders and President Barack Obama are forcing Blue Dogs like him to take too many tough votes. He said he’s been urging them not to repeat the sins of 1994, when Democrats were blindsided by the tough environment.

“I’ve been doing that with this White House, and they just don’t seem to give it any credibility at all,” Berry said. “They just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was, you’ve got me.’ We’re going to see how much difference that makes now.”

Biden, the vice president’s son, said his decision had nothing to do with politics, but it’s pretty apparent that his task against Castle was getting more and more difficult. That became particularly clear after fellow Attorney General Martha Coakley’s (D) loss to Sen.-elect Scott Brown (R) in last week’s special election for a Massachusetts Senate seat.

Biden instead cited an all-consuming prosecution his office is faced with, involving a pediatrician accused of molesting children who were his patients. He said later that he hadn’t even factored Coakley’s loss into his decisionmaking process.

Whatever the cause, Biden’s decision leaves Castle as a strong favorite to reach the upper chamber.

Appointed Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) re-asserted Monday that he won’t run for the seat, but Vice President Joe Biden actively lobbied for him to change his mind during an interview with a Delaware columnist over the weekend.

Beyond him, Democrats will look to New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, who said after Biden’s announcement that he will consider a run. A recent Public Policy Polling (D) survey showed Castle leading Coons 51-39.

With Beau Biden, national Democrats took the unusual step of telegraphing their recruiting in the state. They said repeatedly that they fully expected Biden to run, and they maintained that posture even as he returned from a deployment to Iraq and hesitated.

It was an unusual approach for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which doesn’t often comment on recruiting matters. Now the committee will have to do some convincing with candidates like Coons.

A Delaware Democratic official said that’s an open question for potential candidates. The official said potential candidates would want “to spend some time sounding out national fundraising sources to see if this was still a race that would attract sufficient funds to run a credible campaign.”

Democrats in the state were less convinced that Biden would run.

“You probably could talk to any political operative or staffer in Delaware, and they wouldn’t give you the same answer that you were receiving from the national party,” said Erik Schramm, chairman of the New Castle County Democratic Party.

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Beau Biden, who will turn 41 next week, is likely to be a player when top seats come up in the future, with many seeing him as biding his time. His current prosecution gives him a good reason not to run this year in a tough environment and could provide him a big win that will keep him in the political dialogue in the years to come.

“I have an incredible fire in my belly and my heart and soul to do this job with the energy I’ve done every else with,” he told WDEL-AM in an interview.

Castle was uncertain about running for the Senate before jumping into the race at the start of the fourth quarter last year. He talked openly about the pleasures of retirement, and if he wins, he would be up for reelection in 2014, when he will be 75 years old.