Rep. Bart Gordon’s (D-Tenn.) retirement announcement Monday could turn the slow trickle of Democratic retirements into a steady drip.
Former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), a one-time chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), noted that Gordon is of a prime age and situation to make money as a lobbyist, especially with Democrats in power in both houses of Congress and the presidency.
And if Gordon makes the switch, it stands to reason that others might wonder if it’s the right path for them as well.
“Sometimes, this can be contagious,” Frost said.
Still, Democrats were momentarily reserving their angst.
“I’m not yet convinced that a tsunami is coming,” said Southern Democratic consultant David Mowery. “But I do think you have to start thinking about, ‘Is the ground moving?’ ”
Gordon became the fourth Democratic incumbent in three weeks to announce he would not run in 2010. All four come from potentially difficult districts, including two won by Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements MORE (R-Ariz.) in last year’s presidential contest.
Democratic leaders aren’t hitting the panic button yet — that won’t likely come until retirements hit double-digits — but Gordon’s exit is more troubling than the others. At 60, he is relatively young, having become a full committee chairman three years ago. He also leaves behind a strongly conservative district that will be among the most difficult in the country for his party to hold.
At the same time, Gordon has been in Congress for 25 years. He has not announced his post-2010 plans but, with a young child at home, said it was his time to call it a career.
“When I was elected, I was the youngest member of the Tennessee congressional delegation; now I’m one of the oldest,” Gordon said. “In fact, I have members of my staff who weren’t even born when I took office. That tells me it’s time for a new chapter.”
Seeking to suggest that he wasn’t pushed out by the GOP, Gordon’s office noted in its press release that he has consistently carried all parts of his district. But Democrats were beginning to wonder Monday whether the exit of a committee chairman with plenty of years left to serve could lead others to re-evaluate their own plans for 2010.
Though Democrats downplayed the electoral peril faced by the so-called “McCain Democrats,” Mowery said it’s pretty clear politics are part of the calculus for veteran members.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” he said. “In a vacuum, it might be different. But when you look at what-all’s going on, you have to say these things are probably happening for a reason.”
Republicans have targeted more than a dozen Democrats for retirement. Those on the watch list include three other committee chairmen — Reps. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), John Spratt (D-S.C.) and Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) — as well as Reps. Marion Berry (D-Ark.), Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.).
Frost said 10 to 15 retirements is when things start to get dicey.
“Four is not a very large number, but the question is what happens over the next couple months,” he said.
Gordon’s district went for McCain by a 62-37 margin and is one of the most conservative held by a Democrat. With the immediate entry Monday of state Sen. Jim Tracy (R) into the race, Republicans will be favored to win the seat next year.
First, Tracy faces a primary with wealthy party activist Lou Ann Zelenik. While many so-called “Tea Party” candidates have asserted themselves against the establishment, Zelenik stands out as actually having the money to cause some damage.
Democrats who could run include state Rep. Mike McDonald, state Rep. Hank Fincher, Wilson County Sheriff Terry Ashe, Murfreesboro Mayor Tommy Bragg and former state Sens. Andy Womack and Jo Ann Graves.
Gordon’s district should be more difficult to hold than any of the other three retirees’: Reps. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.), Brian Baird (D-Wash.) and John Tanner (D-Tenn.). And unlike in Tanner’s district, where state Sen. Roy Herron was an immediate replacement, Democrats didn’t have an instant answer in Gordon’s district.
Both Tanner’s and Gordon’s districts remain difficult and might have been for the incumbents as well.
“Tanner probably easily would have won; with Gordon, it probably would have been a little more difficult,” said Vanderbilt political scientist Bruce Oppenheimer.
As chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, Gordon became the first full committee chairman in the House to call it quits this cycle.
Rep. Jerry Costello (Ill.), the second-ranking Democrat on the panel, said after the announcement that he would seek the chairmanship. Third-ranking Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said she would support Costello and fourth-ranking Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) won’t seek the post.
In addition to the retirements of four members, Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) announced Friday that he will resign early to run for governor.
That could lead to a headache for Democrats, especially if they can’t settle on one candidate in the winner-take-all race.