Exits of two senior senators mostly bad news for Democrats

Retirement of Sen. Byron Dorgan means it will be harder for Democrats to keep their filibuster-proof Senate majority after 2010. But the exit of Sen. Christopher Dodd improves Democrats' chances of holding onto his seat.

Charles Krupa/AP
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn, announces that he will retire after his current term outside his home in East Haddam, Conn., Wednesday.

Within a matter of hours, the Democrats have seen three key figures – two in Washington, one outside – turn themselves into lame ducks. Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, and Gov. Bill Ritter of Colorado, have all announced they’re not running for reelection.

That’s mostly bad news for the Democrats, who just a year ago were riding high on the impending inauguration of Barack Obama and greatly expanded majorities in both houses of Congress. Now, the atmosphere has altered dramatically, as President Obama struggles to keep his job approval at or near 50 percent and his party works to minimize its losses in congressional races this November. Democrats can probably kiss their 60-seat, filibuster-proof Senate majority goodbye.

The one bright spot for Democrats is that Senator Dodd’s seat in Connecticut now has an excellent shot at staying in Democratic hands, with the expected announcement Wednesday of popular state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) that he will run for the seat. Until his announcement, Dodd was the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent of the cycle, owing to perceptions that he had lost touch with his home state. But as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Dodd will now spend the next year as a lame duck, which could hurt his clout in the battle for financial regulation reform.

The surprise announcement by Governor Ritter of Colorado does not directly affect the Senate, of course, but it does add to the sense that the Democrats are in retreat – especially in a part of the country, the Mountain West, where the party had made dramatic inroads in recent years. Senator Dorgan, a Democratic stalwart in a red state, also caught his party by surprise in deciding to retire. Dorgan, a three-term senator with a total of 40 years in public service, comes from the old school that believes in working across the aisle. His seat is now in the “lean Republican” column in the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Obama's role in raiding the Senate

All in all, says Jennifer Duffy, the Senate and statehouse watcher at Cook Political, it’s been a crazy year, politically. Obama himself is partly to blame, as he raided the Senate for Cabinet picks, not to mention the fact that his own former Senate seat and that of Vice President Joe Biden could go Republican in November.

“The cycle started with us asking, ‘How many more seats can the Democrats actually pick up?’ to a point where, now all we talk about is how many seats they’re going to lose,” says Ms. Duffy. “You’ve seen this big shift in the political environment and seats that were only a little bit vulnerable becoming more vulnerable, like Colorado.”

She is referring to Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (D), who was appointed to the seat by Governor Ritter after Obama named Sen. Ken Salazar to head the Interior Department.

Also vulnerable is Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) of Arkansas. “And having the majority leader [Harry Reid of Nevada] in not great shape, that’s a pretty weird cycle,” says Duffy.

A GOP Senate takeover? Not likely – so far

With Democrats controlling 60 Senate seats out of 100, Republicans need 11 Democratic-held seats in play to have a shot at taking over the majority, which they don’t have. What’s more, Democrats have a chance at taking over five Republican-held seats – in Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Louisiana – which makes the Republicans’ chances all the more remote. But the year is young.

For now, though, Democrats – including the president – are taking stock of the departures of Dodd and Dorgan, who between them have won eight six-year terms in the Senate. The White House issued statements on both men, calling Dorgan a “trusted leader for the people of his state” and praising Dodd for “a remarkable record of achievement.”

Dodd’s departure was simultaneously surprising and unsurprising. Dodd loves being a senator, as he noted in his retirement announcement, and it would have been easy to see him go out fighting. But his reelection prospects were bleak, after some damaging events. When he ran in the 2008 presidential cycle, he moved his family temporarily to Iowa, which the people of Connecticut did not appreciate. He was also hurt by the revelation that he had received VIP treatment on a mortgage from tainted lender Countrywide Financial, even though Dodd insisted he didn’t know he was getting a favor and was cleared of wrongdoing by the Senate Ethics Committee.

Dorgan is being lauded as a progressive populist who has quietly but forcefully advocated for his causes, particularly economic.

“There’s just a fundamental decency about him,” says Jonathan Rowe, a former staffer. “He was always looking for opportunities to reach across the aisle, to diminish the rancor.”

[Editor's note: The subhead has been changed to accurately characterize how the two senators' retirements affect the Democrats' Senate prospects in 2010.]


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