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Quitters take toll on GOP

Last year, facing life in the minority and poor electoral prospects, scores of congressional Republicans jumped ship to K Street and other welcoming redoubts. Twenty-seven House Republicans called it quits prior to the 2008 elections, compared to just six Democrats — two of whom got promotions to the Senate.

During the same cycle, five Senate Republicans retired. Not a single Democrat joined them.

When the going gets tough ... Republicans quit.

So, facing a 79-seat deficit in the House, and an 18-seat deficit in the Senate, the GOP retirement boomlet is fated to continue.

With the new Congress just barely having been sworn in, Senate Republicans are off to a tough start.

Three battleground-state Republicans have already announced their retirements — Kit Bond of Missouri, Mel Martinez of Florida and George Voinovich of Ohio. Republican incumbents had recently lost tough elections in Missouri and Ohio, and neither Bond nor Martinez saw any point in undergoing a brutal and uncertain reelection campaign in order to sit in a near-powerless minority. All three vacant seats are instant toss-ups.

In addition, Sam Brownback of Kansas is departing the Senate at the end of this term, leaving an open seat in Kansas up for grabs. While Kansas isn’t exactly fertile territory for Democrats, an open seat makes it more likely that popular Gov. Kathleen Sebelius may try and break the GOP’s 71-year stranglehold on both of the state’s Senate seats. There’s no doubt that officials at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee breathed a sigh of relief when Sebelius didn’t end up in the Obama administration.

Unfortunately for Republicans, the four senatorial retirements announced thus far may be just the beginning. Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is expected to resign early from the Senate to run for governor, opening up a special election in the state. And while a vacancy in still-red Texas would favor the GOP, Republicans may also lose popular incumbent Sen. Chuck Grassley in Iowa. The Republican bench is all but nonexistent in the Hawkeye State, and the campaign to replace Grassley would lean Democratic. Rumors also abound about Judd Gregg retiring in New Hampshire, which would create another strong Democratic pickup opportunity.

Ironically, the one guy Republicans probably wish would retire is hanging on for dear life. Sen. Jim Bunning barely held his seat in 2004 — a Republican year — in Kentucky — a heavily Republican state — against an underfunded candidate (now-Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo), and will be 79 years old on Election Day 2010. If the GOP had its way, he’d be nudged into a welcome retirement. Yet despite obvious diminished capacities and poor electoral prospects, Bunning insists that he is running for reelection.

No Democrats have announced their retirements, and only Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski appears to be a retirement possibility. Those Democrats who haven’t jumped to positions in the Obama administration have no intention of bailing when the going is this good.

Things have started a bit quieter in the House, with just four Republicans announcing retirements to run for higher office, but the numbers undoubtedly will swell over the coming year. Many will opt to run for higher office, others will head to lucrative private practice, and yet others may truly be interested in finally spending some time with their families. But whatever the excuse, the motivation will be the same — it’s no fun being a powerless back-bencher.

Yet each retirement exacts a price for the GOP, forcing it to play defense in the next election when what it really needs to do is start chipping away at the Democratic majorities.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos.