WASHINGTON — In the last week of January, five members of Congress joined the hottest demographic group on Capitol Hill: Republicans who are heading for the exits.
Reps. Tom Davis of Virginia, Kenny Hulshof of Missouri, Ron Lewis of Kentucky, Dave Weldon of Florida and James Walsh of New York are among 25 Republican members of the House of Representatives who've announced their resignations or retirements. The party is closing in quickly on its record of 27 House retirements, set in 1952.
Hulshof is running for governor; the others are retiring.
"It's become an epidemic," said David Johnson, a Republican consultant and strategist based in Atlanta.
While some members, such as Hulshof, are leaving to pursue new political opportunities, most observers say that the mass departures are the result of the loss of Republican control in the 2006 elections, lackluster fundraising and low morale.
So far, only five House Democrats have announced that they're leaving, either to retire or to run for Senate seats.
Prospects look equally bright for Democrats in the Senate, where five Republican veterans — John Warner of Virginia, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Larry Craig of Idaho and Wayne Allard of Colorado — are ready to hang it up.
It adds up to a tough year for Republicans, who at a minimum will face a big loss of seniority and experience when the 111th Congress convenes next January. Analysts predict that the party will be hard-pressed to keep Democrats from expanding their 232-199 House majority.
"It means that whatever little chance there was — and it always was a little chance — that they could take back the House is pretty much gone. . . . Open seats are always easier to win," said Robert Smith, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University. He said that many retiring Republicans had discovered that after running the House for more than a decade, "it's not as satisfying to go to the other side."
Much of the Democratic excitement is focused on the party's ability to attract big-time cash.
Outgunning Republicans in the money chase for the first time in at least two decades, Democrats raised a record $67.5 million for House races last year and finished the year with more than $35 million in cash.
"The American people are energized and inspired by Democrats' agenda of change and the strong candidates we've recruited across the country," said Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
At least 10 of the retiring House members belong to the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, veterans such as Virginia's Davis, New York's Walsh and Minnesota's Jim Ramstad. Some observers predict that the Republican candidates who are nominated to replace them are likely to be more conservative.
Johnson, who worked on Republican former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign and has overseen numerous congressional races, said that four more House Republicans could step aside this year. That would break the party's record.
"I would say there's a good possibility, depending on how the polls continue to look," Johnson said. "The Republican brand right now is damaged. Voters are not blaming the Democratic Congress, even though the polls show that Congress is held in such low esteem. Voters are blaming Republicans more than they're blaming the Democrats who are in power. . . . All of a sudden we're playing defense."
Only 33 percent of Americans gave Congress a positive job rating in an ABC-Washington Post poll conducted last week. However, an earlier poll by the same organizations found that 54 percent of respondents still want Democrats to control Congress next year, compared with 40 percent who want Republicans back in charge. The findings were nearly identical to those of a USA Today-Gallup poll in December.
Republicans acknowledge that they face an uphill fight this year, but their leaders are trying to put the best face on their situation.
Julie Shutley, the deputy communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, predicted that the party will be in a good position to replace all 25 of its departing members with Republicans. "We feel like we have a very good Republican bench of candidates in the districts that are going to be open seats," she said.
Some analysts regard the exodus of Republicans as normal, the result of natural rhythms that occur in a two-party system, particularly after a watershed election such as 2006, when Democrats won control of both houses of Congress. Under this theory, the party that wins control often will consolidate its power in elections two years later.
Democrats, of course, are hoping for a sweep next November: winning back the White House and strengthening their majorities on Capitol Hill. Or at least winning 60 Senate seats so they have a veto-proof majority if a Republican wins the White House. They're hoping that increased turnout and grass-roots energy in the presidential race will bolster their congressional candidates.
The Republicans' money problems are compounded by an unpopular war in Iraq, an economy that's quickly going south and President Bush's low approval ratings, Smith said.
Johnson said Republicans "haven't adapted to life in the minority" and that the party lacked a cohesive strategy to rebound. He gave credit to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who offers a very different public image from that of Newt Gingrich, the former Georgia congressman who led the House after Republicans won control in 1994. That's the last time the parties traded control.
"Part of the Republican problem right now that I see as a strategist is our communications effort," Johnson said. "We don't have any good communicators. We don't seem to stay on message. We come across as grumpy old men. I hate to say it, but that's part of the problem. We're not telegenic on TV. We're going against Nancy Pelosi, who could be damaged but — I have to take my hat off to her — she's done an excellent job with the media. Nothing seems to stick on her like everything stuck on Newt Gingrich."
HOUSE SEATS OPENING UP
Representative...............Reason for leaving
Tom Lantos, D-Calif. ........Retiring
Mark Udall, D-Colo. ..........Running for Senate
Tom Allen, D-Maine...........Running for Senate
Tom Udall, D-N.M. ............Running for Senate
Michael McNulty, D-N.Y. ...Running for Senate
Terry Everett, R-Ala. ..........Retiring
Rick Renzi, R-Ariz. .............Retiring
John Doolittle, R-Calif. .......Retiring
Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. .....Retiring
Tom Tancredo, R-Colo. .....Retiring
Dave Weldon, R-Fla. ..........Retiring
Jerry Weller, R-Ill. ...............Retiring
Ray LaHood, R-Ill. ..............Retiring
Ron Lewis, R-Ky. ................Retiring
Jim McCrery, R-La. .............Retiring
Richard Baker, R-La. ...........Resigned
Jim Ramstad, R-Minn. .........Retiring
Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo. .........Running for governor
Charles "Chip" Pickering, R-Miss. Retiring
James Saxton, R-N.J. ..............Retiring
Mike Ferguson, R-N.J. ........Retiring
Heather Wilson, R-N.M. ......Running for Senate
Steve Pearce, R-N.M. .........Running for Senate
James Walsh, R-N.Y. ..........Retiring
David Hobson, R-Ohio ........Retiring
Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio .......Retiring
Ralph Regula, R-Ohio .........Retiring
John Peterson, R-Pa. ..........Retiring
Tom Davis, R-Va. ................Retiring
Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo. .......Retiring
Source: Cook Political Report
McClatchy Newspapers 2008