Lack of competitive open seats could hinder GOP election gains in 2010

Republicans have touted 2010 as their comeback year, but the GOP lacks one key ingredient that could turn a good election night into a great one: open seats to win.

In the last three “wave elections,” the party that lost a large number of seats has been hampered by incumbents not running for reelection. But so far in the 2010 cycle, not a single House member has announced his or her retirement, though 18 — seven Democrats and 11 Republicans — have said they will run for higher office.

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Contrast that with the Senate, where two Democrats and eight Republicans have announced their retirement, launching what will be some of the most competitive, and most expensive, races in the country.

Even the chairman of the House Democrats’ election arm thinks it’s odd.

"You would think that, just in the normal, run-of-the-mill cycle, we would see more retirements," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). "Other than a few folks who have decided to run for higher office, we haven't had any."

Several Republicans won their first terms in the House by succeeding retiring Democrats in 1994, including Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and now-Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

Open seats can cause headaches for cash-strapped party committees, which would rather spend their money targeting opposition lawmakers.

"In any given election cycle, the number of open seats you have to deal with is a real challenge, because it means you have to spend resources in places where you might not have to otherwise," said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), the former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

Van Hollen acknowledges the lack of retirements helps the Democrats.

"The normal rule of thumb is that having an open seat creates opportunities for the opposition," he said. "Having fewer retirements certainly helps."

Indeed, that has been the case in recent years.

Republicans took advantage of a plethora of open seats in 1994. That year, 30 Democrats left the House; they were either defeated in a primary, opted to retire or ran for another office. When the GOP picked up 54 seats on Election Day, the party snagged 22 open Democratic seats.

Twelve years later, Democrats won 31 seats to reclaim the majority. In 2006, 28 members of Congress called it quits, including 18 Republicans. Democrats managed to win eight of those open seats while defending all nine of their own and winning Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) open House seat.

In 2008, Republicans were able to retake two of those eight seats, defeating Reps. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.) and Nick Lampson (D-Texas), but others — including Reps. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) and Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) — appear to have firm holds on their districts.

Defying history, Democrats won 21 more seats in 2008. Last year, the party was able to wade into territory that had been represented by Republicans for years, thanks to 26 GOPers who called it quits. Republicans lost control of 12 of their open seats, accounting for more than half the seats Democrats picked up.

Neither party should count on a number of retirements to help it next year, Cole said.

"I don't think there's much incentive [for Democrats] to leave," said Cole, pointing out that even older members of Congress have a majority and a Democratic president to work with for the first time since President Bill Clinton's first two years in office. "This is the opportunity to get some legacy items passed."

Meanwhile, "Republican members are more optimistic about what's in front of them in 2010 than they were going into ’06 or ’08," Cole added. "Everybody who is leaving so far is leaving not to get out of politics, but because they sense an opportunity."

Further deflating some GOP hopes, of those lawmakers who have said they will not return to Congress next year as they seek higher office, there are almost as many opportunities for Democratic pickups as there are for Republicans to add seats.
Republicans have their eyes on seats being vacated by Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) and Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), all three of whom are running for Senate seats. Additionally, the GOP is pleased with Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou (R), who is running to replace Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), a candidate for governor.

But Democrats have strong contenders vying for seats held by Reps. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who is running for Senate, and Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), who is running for governor. President Barack Obama won both Kirk's and Gerlach's districts by wide margins.

Van Hollen, who did not lose any Democratic open seats during his first term atop the DCCC, cites Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) as an example of why members have not hung up their voting cards this year. Kind represents a district Republicans might be able to compete in if it were open, but he has not had a close race since he was first elected in 1996. Last week, Kind said he would not run for governor in 2008.

"Ron decided that, given the vigorous debate at the national level and the fact that so many important decisions are being made at the national level, he was going to stay in Congress," Van Hollen said. "He certainly had a good shot at being governor. So the fact that he stayed, I think, is an indication that our members want to make sure, having become a majority, that we can deliver on the agenda."

Although no member has announced an end to his or her congressional career, that could change in coming months. Most retirement announcements come in the last half of the off year, though they can come later. Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) did not announce his retirement until the final days of January 2008, just 10 months before Election Day.

"The earlier you declare, the longer you're a lame duck," explained Davis, a former NRCC chairman.

Added another former DCCC chairman, ex-Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas): "It's very early, so you can't make a judgment about the number of open seats you're going to have.

"The fact that Democrats are not choosing to give up their seats except to run for something else is not helpful to the Republicans," Frost said. "They would be better off with more Democratic open seats."

Members in both parties could be waiting to see if governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia, as well as a special election in New York's 23rd district, break for or against their party. If one party sweeps the three contests on Nov. 3, the other may endure a painful spate of retirements.

"Retirements tend to be third- and fourth-quarter decisions. Given the environment, any semi-sane Democrat incumbent should be evaluating their reelection chances and considering their options," said NRCC communications director Ken Spain.

But, Davis cautioned, though Republicans lead in both New Jersey and Virginia, the three elections this November could prove painful. "None of them are smooth sailing for Republicans," he said.