WASHINGTON — Stunning as they were, the retirement announcements of two U.S. senators and a governor — all Democrats — over 24 hours weren't as bad as they might have seemed for President Barack Obama's party. But they underscored the perilous political environment for Democrats in an election year stamped by anti-incumbent sentiment.
Embattled Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd was all but forced to quit, and North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan also ditched his re-election effort in the face of a difficult race. Dodd's announcement Wednesday may actually save the Democrats' hold on his seat — the party quickly recruited a stronger candidate — but Dorgan's retirement may cost the party a seat in his Republican-leaning state. And that would mean the loss of a critical 60th vote in the Senate.
Among governors, Democrats were heartened by two developments that cleared the way for stronger candidates not tainted by incumbency: Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, among the most vulnerable for re-election, chose not to seek a second term, and Michigan Lt. Gov. John Cherry, the Democratic front-runner to replace term-limited Gov. Jennifer Granholm, opted against running. Still, despite the moves, Republicans remain excited about the prospect of competitive races in those states.
Combined, the no-campaign decisions highlight the challenges facing Obama's party. The Democrats hope to hang on to comfortable majorities in Congress and a slim edge among governors in a year when voters are angry at lawmakers of all political stripes and likely to punish the party in power.
The bottom line for Obama: Losing even one seat in the Senate would make it more difficult to block Republican filibusters. And if the GOP makes big gains in the House — a pickup of 30 or more seats seems ever more likely — that will make it much harder to pass administration proposals.
All told, the latest developments mean that 2010 is sure to see a slew of competitive races, though it's unlikely — at this point — that Republicans will win enough seats to retake control of either the House or the Senate. Democrats currently control the Senate 58-40, and the two independents also typically vote with the party. The House is now 256-178 for the Democrats, with one vacancy.
The GOP has troubles of its own, with even more Republicans than Democrats leaving Congress and governors' mansions instead of running again.
In the House, 14 Republicans and 10 Democrats are retiring, and Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, has resigned, leaving one vacancy.
In the Senate, six Republicans, including some in swing states requiring pricey campaigns, and four Democrats, including Dodd and Dorgan, aren't running.
Among governors, four Republicans who can seek re-election are opting not to, while the same can be said for three Democrats, including Ritter.