Retirements hit Dem aspirations for a House takeover in 2012 election

Retirements hit Dem aspirations for a House takeover in 2012 election

Rep. Barney Frank’s (D-Mass.) announcement Monday that he won’t seek reelection — coming on the heels of Rep. Charles Gonzalez’s (D-Texas) weekend announcement to the same effect — threw another stumbling block in the way of Democrats as they struggle to take back control of the House.

Frank became the 17th Democratic member of the House to decide not to run for reelection next year, compared to just six on the Republican side. All six GOP members are departing to run for another office, while only eight of the 17 Democrats have their eyes focused upward.


The 15-term lawmaker cited a number of reasons behind his decision, not all of them related to the current political climate. He spoke of his dread of raising funds and his desire to return to academia, but also the redrawing of his district, which saw a number of conservative-leaning towns added to the swath of Massachusetts that Frank would represent.

In 2008, 63 percent of voters in the district chose President Obama; under the redrawn boundaries, 61 percent would have supported Obama.

“This decision was precipitated by congressional redistricting, not entirely caused by it,” Frank said. “There are other things I’d like to do in my life before my career is over.” 

Democrats were initially apprehensive that the once-per-decade redistricting process would prove catastrophic for the party, because Republicans controlled the map-drawing process in so many states.

But while the process is far from complete in many states, results thus far indicate redistricting will amount to a wash for both parties.

Frank avoided any cynicism about Democrats’ chances for flipping the 26 seats they need to wrest back control of the House. He dismissed speculation that he was retiring because he thought it unlikely that he would get to return to his previous role as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, grousing about how laborious and unpleasant those tumultuous years were.

“I think I’d win, but what is relevant to me is I couldn’t put the requisite effort into that,” he said.

Anticipating the blowback it would receive following two high-profile retirements in less than a week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) released a memo Monday showing that a number of Democratic retirements are in left-leaning districts where the party is likely to retain control even without an incumbent.

“Today, you have heard a lot of bluster from Republicans about Democratic retirements — don’t believe it,” the memo said. “The fact is that this cycle, there are fewer retirements than have historically retired.”

That sentiment was echoed by DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.), who called Frank’s district “a strong Democratic district” and predicted a Democrat would remain in it next year.

But Republicans said the two recent retirements would likely not be the last and indicated that Democrats saw the writing on the wall ahead of a presidential-election year where Obama’s low approval ratings are expected to drag down many down-ballot Democrats.

“Members of Congress don’t retire when things are good. They just don’t,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist. “I think they’re looking at it right now and saying, ‘It’s unlikely we’re going to win the House back. If anything, it’s likely we won’t have the Senate, and the White House is a 50-50 shot, at best.’ ”

Democrats also might be wringing their hands at the prospect of spending more than just a few years in the political backwoods, anticipating they might not be able to escape the minority until the economy recovers some years down the line, said Chris Perkins, a GOP pollster in Texas, where Gonzalez is retiring.


“What it does is allow the Republicans to build a narrative,” Perkins said. “It makes the recruiting efforts for the DCCC that much harder, when potential candidates see a lot of senior members bailing.”

But if voters are wary of putting Democrats in power, they’re even more hesitant to cede control to those associated with Washington gridlock — regardless of their party affiliation. Democratic strategist Josh Nanberg said he is advising clients who don’t have a lengthy political résumé that 2012 is the perfect opportunity to help their party regain control.

“I’ve been telling them, if you’re someone who hasn’t been a politician for 20 years, this is a great time to be running,” Nanberg said, dismissing concerns that Democrats wouldn’t want to wage a costly and divisive election battle only to find themselves powerless in the minority. “I don’t think that’s a factor at all.”

And Michael Fraioli, a Democratic fundraiser and former PAC director for the DCCC, pointed out that while 2012 will be a challenging year for Democrats, it could be worse.

“If you survived 2010, you’re probably not thinking that 2012 is going to be tougher,” he said.

- This post was updated at 9:32 a.m.