By Alexander Bolton - 11/25/12 11:00 AM EST
One of the highest immediate political priorities for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Democratic political guru Charles Schumer (N.Y.) is to persuade veteran colleagues not to retire in 2014.
Democratic sources identify four senators as most likely to retire: Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
Democrats would have a tough time defending their seats in West Virginia and South Dakota without incumbents running. Iowa, a blue-leaning state that gave President Obama a six-point victory over Mitt Romney, is a competitive race that slightly favors Democrats and New Jersey is a safe bet to stay in their column. Michigan resembles Iowa in that it leans Democratic but a strong Republican candidate could capture the seat if Levin leaves.
Rockefeller is seen as the most likely to step down from the Senate at the end of 2014. He reported only $704,000 in his campaign account at the end of September and a high-profile break with the coal industry — a powerful player in West Virginia — was interpreted as a sign he would not run.
Rockefeller urged coal companies to “face reality” and stop using scare tactics to oppose federal regulations, a stark contrast to Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) stance toward the administration. Manchin won re-election easily this year by campaigning against its environmental policies.
One Democratic source with ties to the Senate leadership said Rockefeller “has been making noises like he’s thinking of retiring” and has done little fundraising.
Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, faces a tough race against former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, who has launched an exploratory committee for a Senate run.
Johnson is still coping with the debilitating effects of a brain hemorrhage he suffered in 2006 and needs a motorized wheelchair to get around the Senate. While Johnson’s speech is slurred, colleagues and aides say his mind is sharp.
He has served as chairman of the Banking panel for only two years and appears to relish the job. Winning re-election would give him more time to leave his mark on the committee.
Johnson has yet to announce his decision but a lobbyist with strong ties to Senate Democrats predicted he would run for a fourth term.
He reported $1.2 million in his campaign war chest at the end of September.
Lautenberg reported only $203,000 in his campaign account at the end of September, a red flag in one of the most expensive media markets in the country. He will be 90 years old on Election Day, which is the main reason why Senate observers think he will step down.
Caley Gray, Lautenberg’s spokesman, dismissed the retirement rumors.
“Senator Lautenberg has a lot of work to do in the Senate rebuilding New Jersey after Sandy struck and retirement is the last thing on his mind,” he said.
Lautenberg has already secured an endorsement from Schumer for 2014.
Some Democrats would like to see Newark Mayor Cory Booker fill the seat but Lautenberg may not give it up without a fight. He criticized Booker in May for undermining Obama’s re-election effort after Booker said the president’s campaign should drop efforts to vilify Mitt Romney’s career at Bain Capital.
Harkin reported $2.7 million in cash on hand at the end of September but a source close to the senator said he still has not made up his mind about whether to run again.
Harkin has held fundraising events in recent months, however, signaling to allies he is preparing for another race.
Levin is expected to announce his decision at the beginning of next year but he has not yet said for certain that he will bid for a seventh term.
He reported only $286,000 in his campaign account at the end of September, prompting speculation that he is mulling retirement. Levin’s small war chest, however, is in line with what he reported at similar points in previous election cycles. He tends to raise little money when not in cycle.
The next election cycle poses a threat to Reid’s tenure as majority leader because Democrats have to defend 20 seats while Republicans have 13 up for re-election. He expanded his majority to a comfortable margin of 55 to 45 in the upper chamber, counting two independents caucusing with the Democrats. But a slew of Democrats face tough races in conservative leaning states: such as Mark Begich in Alaska, Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana.
Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) won with 42 percent and 52 percent of the vote, respectively, in 2008 and could also have competitive contests.
Incumbency proved a powerful defense in 2012 as only one incumbent lost: Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who kept his race close despite running in a state with an overwhelming Democratic voter-registration advantage. Republicans lost another seat because of the surprise retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).
Democrats lost their only seat in Nebraska, where Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) retired. An internal poll Nelson conducted at the end of 2011, however, showed he had a strong chance of winning had he decided to stay in the Senate.