Dems’ exits, ’10 landscape

With Democratic Tennessee Rep. Bart Gordon having announced his retirement, the missing ingredient for a potential Republican wave year in 2010 — open seats — appears to be materializing. 

Kind of.

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Gordon is the fourth Democrat to retire, but there are actually 10 Democratic open seats, with six other Democrats quitting the House for either Senate or gubernatorial runs. And while no House Republican has announced an outright retirement, 12 of them are seeking political promotions to the Senate or statehouses. As things currently stand, there are actually more Republican open seats than Democratic ones.

But not all open seats are created equal. Of the 10 Democratic open seats, seven could be politically competitive (and possibly eight, since an open-field special election in Hawaii’s 1st congressional district will possibly pit a single Republican against at least two top-tier Democrats). Of the 12 Republican open seats, only three or four are similarly competitive. Even throwing in Republican Rep. Joseph Cao’s expected loss in the overwhelmingly Democratic Louisiana 3rd congressional district, the GOP certainly has the distinct advantage.

However, as things stand, the open-seat situation isn’t dire for Democrats — yet. In 2008, Republicans had to defend 27 open seats, compared to just six Democratic ones. Democrats picked up 13; Republicans picked up none. In 2006, Republicans defended 21 open seats, Democrats nine (plus Independent Bernie Sanders in Vermont). Democrats picked up eight, Republicans none. In the GOP’s last wave election, 1994, 31 Democrats retired or ran for other office, 22 of whom fell to the GOP.

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And from a practical standpoint, House Democrats will be spared having to spend money on some of these districts. Gordon’s district delivered only 37 percent of its vote to Barack Obama, and House Republicans were expected to aggressively pursue this seat. Dem cash can be better spent elsewhere, and they have far more of it. As of November’s report, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had raised $48 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s $31 million. The DCCC was sitting on $15 million in the bank, while the NRCC had $4 million — barely enough to contest two top-tier House contests. That number will undoubtedly rise in the coming year, but House Republicans continue to operate out of a financial hole.

Then there’s the matter of the GOP’s own civil war, with an ongoing ideological purge making it difficult for moderate Republicans to survive within their own party. Indeed, such a conflict already cost Republicans an easy hold in the recent NY-23 special election. Third-party conservative challengers are expected in several top-tier races, including freshman Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello’s VA-05 — and a poll last week by conservative pollster Scott Rasmussen found that in a three-way match-up, a hypothetical “Tea Party” candidate would outpoll the GOP one, 23-18, with Democrats leading the way with 36 percent of the vote. Activists inside the Republican National Committee want to deny party funding to any Republican who fails more than three of the party’s declared principles — a litmus test so strict that even Ronald Reagan would’ve failed.

But there’s no doubt that Democrats are also in trouble, with a demoralized base unwilling to turn out for a party unable to deliver on campaign promises, and there is still time for more retirements to be announced. While 21 House members announced their retirement by the end of 2007 (similar to the 22 thus far this year), just 12 more quit in 2008. If Democrats can keep their retirements to a similar level, Republicans will lack the opportunities and resources to make the 41-seat gain necessary to take over the House.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com).