Latest GOP setback: Florida's Senator Martinez to retire early

Six other Republican senators have announced they’ll retire. The exits are a sign the GOP sees itself in 'back seat' for years, say analysts.

Scott Audette/Reuters
Sen. Mel Martinez (R) of Florida discussed his plans to step down during a news conference Friday as his family looked on at the Orlando International Airport in Florida.

In a move long rumored and often denied, Sen. Mel Martinez (R) of Florida announced on Friday his early retirement from the US Senate, effective as soon as he can be replaced.

The resignation comes at a tough time for his Senate GOP colleagues. With the election of Sen. Al Franken (D) of Minnesota, they fell below the 41 votes needed to sustain a filibuster for the first time since 1977.

With the loss of the filibuster, the most powerful weapon of a Senate minority, “Republicans realized that they were in the back seat in the Senate – and would be in a back seat in the federal government for years to come,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Six other Republicans have already announced their retirement from the Senate. They are Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, Christopher Bond of Missouri, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, and George Voinovich of Ohio.

In a message to supporters Friday, Senator Martinez said, “When I began my term as Senator, I promised I wouldn't simply warm a seat; I promised to take on the difficult issues and work to make a difference.”

At a briefing Friday afternoon announcing his decision, Martinez said he was retiring to spend more time with his family and to return to Florida. "I also look forward to being an active part of a resurgent Republican party," he said.

Recently named counselor to the Senate Republican leader, Martinez has been a factor in GOP leadership meetings. As the lone Hispanic among Senate Republicans and, briefly, as chair of the Republican National Committee, he tried to move his party toward adopting a policy of comprehensive immigration reform, without success.

On Thursday, he was one of only nine Republicans to vote to confirm Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, the first Hispanic to serve on the high court.

“Mel has been an outstanding advocate and public servant for his state and nation at every level of government," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in a statement. "He put his own plans on hold to serve at the national level and has been a well-respected statesman ever since. While I know he’s eager to return to his family and beloved Florida, his positive influence on the Senate will be greatly missed and deeply appreciated.”

His replacement for the remainder of his term will be named by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), who is currently leading in the race for that Senate seat in 2010.

Commenting on Governor Crist’s options to replace Martinez, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee said on C-Span’s "Newsmakers" on Friday: “It only gets tricky if you try to appoint yourself, which would be an unwise thing to do.”

Martinez’s early retirement won’t change the landscape of the 2010 Florida Senate race, GOP strategists say.

“We are thankful to have a very strong Republican candidate in Gov. Charlie Crist and we are confident that this seat will remain in the Republican column in 2010,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

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