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A Typology for Congressional Retirements

Lost amid the attention to the health care bill this week are the ramifications of Tennessee Democratic Congressman Bart Gordon’s announcement Monday of his pending retirement. Chris Cilliza and Dan Balz wrote a detailed piece in the Washington Post Tuesday about the larger issue of Democratic retirements and party competitiveness next November that’s worth reading.

As I wrote Monday in a guest post over at Salon’s War Room, retirements happen every cycle but mass retirements tend to happen to either (a) when a party is about to suffer major losses, or (b) after a party has suffered major losses and usually its majority. In the first case, retirees want to avoid the pain, hassle and embarrassment of an expected loss, of either their seat or even their role as a majority-caucus member; in the second, survivors, whatever their level of electoral safety, just don’t find it as meaningful to be in the minority.

That distinction led me to think about a more general typology for retirement calculus.

In the figure above, looking row-wise, we have the two cycles mentioned above: when a majority-party member anticipates his party is in danger of losing significant seats, perhaps including his/her own, and possibly the chamber majority; and a member of a party that just lost the majority the previous cycle, or very recently.

Column-wise, I have trichotomized members as either representing (1) normally safe seats temporarily in jeopardy because their incumbents, for reasons like scandals, are in specific trouble; (2) swing-district seats that are structurally competitive regardless of incumbent; or (3) safe seats that are safe only because that particular incumbent is popular in what might be an otherwise competitive district. (I’ve left out retirements in seats that are overwhelmingly tilted toward one party or the other because, in theory, the retirement there should not matter in terms of partisan control.)

OK, for the Democrats, now in power, we are most interested in the top row. And more specifically the DCCC and Chris Van Hollen should be more worried as we move left to right along the three cells.

  1. A1. In the top-left cell, if an incumbent is in personal trouble in a district that normally would never be in peril, you actually want a retirement. LA’s William Jefferson is the perfect example. He didn’t retire–the voters “retired” him. But in the long term the Democrats should be able to recover this seat, and probably wouldn’t have lost it if Jefferson did the right thing and resigned so some Democrat not plagued by scandal could step in. Duke Cunningham resigned and Republicans held that seat; but when Richard Pombo, also in an ethical stew, soldiered ahead, Democrat Jerry McNerney won. So, these are districts where retirement may actually be a relief or, at worst, a short-term and small worry.
  2. A2. In the top-middle cell, you have retirees from swing districts. Obviously, you’d rather have your incumbent running for re-election. But if they are going to retire, the risk of losing the seat, though raised, is mitigated by the fact that a swing district was going to be a fight and require resources. In other words, this is a seat you could lose in a small- or large-wave cycle even with your incumbent running for re-election.
  3. A3. Retirements in the top-right cell are safe so long as their longtime, popular incumbents remain there, but otherwise favor the other party. Republican Jim Leach** of Iowa, for example, held one of the most Democratically-leaning seats in the House before he decided to throw in the towel. When he did, progressive Democrat Dave Loebsack swept in to grab it.

And it this last category of seats that make Gordon’s announcement tough for Democrats, because Gordon is the Democratic equivalent to a Jim Leach. Specifically, he’s one of the 49 so-called “McCain Democrats”–that is, Dems representing districts John McCain carried in 2008. McCain’s margin was 25 points in Gordon’s district. Of the other three announced Democratic retirees, in terms of potential risk of losing the seats, fellow Tennessean John Tanner’s districts was carried by McCain by 13 points, KS’ Dennis Moore was carried by Barack Obama by just 3 points, and WA’s Brian Baird’s seat is perhaps the safest for Democrats (Obama +9).

The real worry, as Cilizza and Balz note, is a quartet of southern House Democrats rumored to be pondering retirement–and all four are McCain Democrats. With their McCain margins in parentheses, they are: AR’s Marion Berry (+20 for McCain), TX’s Chet Edwards (+35), AR’s Vic Snyder (+10), and SC’s John Spratt (+7). In short, they are four more Bart Gordons in waiting. And that’s why Gordon’s retirement, if it does open the floodgates and out pour the above, that spells DCCC trouble.

Now, as everybody by now knows, I’ve made the case for building non-southern majorities. And if I were to be told that those four southern Dems were going to be replaced by four midwestern ones, that would be one thing. But losing seats is still a bad outcome for Democrats, even if they are Blue Dogs who often vote against the Speaker and the President.

**Sorry, thanks to readers I realize I confused my Iowa Jims, and cited Jim Leach (who didn’t retire) instead of Jim Nussle (who did) in the top-right box. It doesn’t change the general typology, but my sincere apologies for the error. I’ve written about 25 posts in the last four days for Salon and 538 and, not that that’s an excuse, but I guess I’m a bit fried right now.