Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Senator Dodd to retire

Senator Christopher J. Dodd in his office on Capitol Hill in September 2008.

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, the embattled Connecticut Democrat who was facing an increasingly tough bid for a sixth term, announced on Wednesday that he would not run.

5 terms, 30 years.

Mr. Dodd, 65, a pivotal figure in the major debates now confronting Congress, said he had made the decision two weeks ago, on Christmas Eve, as he stood in Arlington National Cemetery, where his close friend Senator Edward M. Kennedy was buried last summer. Mr. Dodd said he went there after the Senate had passed the bill to overhaul the health care system.

“In the long sweep of American history,” he said outside his home in East Haddam, Conn., “there are moments for each elected official to step aside and let others step up. This is my moment to step aside.” He said one reason for his decision was that he was in “the toughest political shape” of his career.

And then some.

His announcement came less than 24 hours after another Democratic senator, Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, also announced that he would not seek re-election in November. The developments underscored the fragility of the Democrats’ 60-vote Senate majority, which is just enough to block Republican filibusters. Democratic incumbents also face serious challenges in Arkansas, Colorado, Nevada and Pennsylvania among other states.

On the other hand, there are some Republican seats are in peril.

Mr. Dodd was already considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats facing re-election this year, and party officials had been privately hoping he would step aside so the Democrats would not lose a seat that has been in their column for 46 years.

Timeline: Christopher J. DoddInteractive
Timeline: Christopher J. Dodd

Mr. Dodd’s move opened the way for another Democrat — Connecticut’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal — to run. Democrats and Republicans said Mr. Blumenthal would be a much stronger candidate in what is a Democratic state, and on Wednesday morning Mr. Blumenthal said he had decided to enter the race. He said in a telephone interview that he would announce his candidacy on Wednesday afternoon.

He was already facing challenges from two potentially formidable Republicans: Linda McMahon, the wealthy former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, and Rob Simmons, a former congressman. With the election still months away, Ms. McMahon has spent more than $5 million on television advertisements, building herself a potent campaign organization.

Mr. Dodd has been a fixture in the Senate for nearly 30 years, and had been at the center of the recent debates on health care and financial regulation. But while the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, issued a statement saying Mr. Dodd “had always been on the front lines to make a difference where it counts,” many Democrats do not see his departure as a profound loss, even with their razor-thin balance in the Senate. He was vulnerable, and they had come to believe the party’s chances of keeping the seat would be better with a different candidate.

Political realism.

And, for Democrats, there was another what-if. Had Mr. Dodd lost to a Republican, President Obama’s agenda could have been narrowed for the rest of his presidency. So from that perspective, Mr. Dodd did his party—and the president—a favor by stepping aside.

Mr. Dodd’s numbers in polls have gone “down, down, down,” said Maurice Carroll, the director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, though he said there had been “a blip of an up” before another drop. “It’s partly self-inflicted, but partly he’s a victim of the times,” Mr. Carroll said. “People are sore at Washington, and there goes what’s been a good Senate career.”

That might cut both ways. See the post on South Carolinian Republicans attacking Senator Graham for cooperating with Democrats.

“I think he is just accepting the facts,” said Edward L. Marcus, who led the Democratic party in Connecticut from 1992 to 2000, “and you have to congratulate him for doing the right thing.”

And a blog post in the NY Times:

Democrats Face Shifting and Perilous Political Environment

President Obama awoke on Wednesday to a dispiriting reality: Less than a year after taking office on the strength of a historic Democratic sweep, his party is facing a shifting and perilous political environment that could have big implications for this year’s midterm elections and his own agenda.

He is not doing well right now.

The rapid swing was underscored by the sudden announcements that Senators Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota would rather retire than fight the uphill – and uncertain – battle toward re-election. Word that the Democratic governor of Colorado, Bill Ritter, had made the same decision only heightened the perception that the party’s fortunes had turned after a year in which a conservative push against Mr. Obama’s ambitious agenda, a sluggish recovery from the deep recession and an outbreak of angry populism nibbled away at his political strength.

The White House knew, of course, that this would be a bleak political year. Seldom has a week passed where a Democrat, fearful of the outcome in the midterm elections, hasn’t switched parties or jumped ship entirely. But the decisions from Mr. Dodd and Mr. Dorgan, who have served a combined 46 years in the Senate, brought new attention to the party’s troubles.

And just one year ago the governing prospects were so bright; typically, the Democrats botched it up.

The prospect of Democrats holding their Senate majority – 60 votes to overcome Republican filibusters – is now clearly more difficult. While Mr. Dodd’s departure actually seems to increase the chances of his party holding his seat, Mr. Dorgan’s retirement gives Republicans a good shot at a pickup in a conservative-leaning state. And while legislative politics is always complex, even with 60 votes – just look at what it took for Democrats to get a health care bill through the Senate – Mr. Obama’s agenda will become even trickier to pass with each lost Democratic seat, especially in the Senate.

Democrats have tried and largely failed all year to win over moderate Republicans as they push Mr. Obama’s initiatives. The Democrats would become even more reliant on centrist Republicans like Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, should they lose their 60-seat majority.

Moreover, the moderate and conservative-leaning Democrats, like Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, could also look at the changing environment and prove even less willing to go along with their party on difficult issues. Even before the November elections, the sense that Democrats face increasing peril could hurt the prospect of the more liberal House succeeding in extracting concessions on health care legislation from the Senate, whose bill had a more centrist tilt to it.

For Democrats, the time for real panic will come if those retirements create a domino effect among other vulnerable Democrats. If, for example, Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas suddenly announces that she will not seek re-election – a prospect her aides say is out of the question – that would be a moment of real alarm for the party.

Democrats have a talent for snatching defeat out of the jwas of victory.

But even Republicans weren’t feeling entirely giddy on Wednesday. The Dodd-Dorgan decision may, essentially, be a political wash.

Republicans were optimistic about their chances of knocking off Mr. Dodd and picking up a seat in Connecticut. But even before he made his announcement official, the state’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, threw his hat into the ring. Mr. Blumenthal has a far stronger chance of holding the seat for Democrats, party strategists believe, so suddenly Republicans may have far less of an opportunity than they thought.

In North Dakota, Mr. Dorgan was already facing a tough re-election and Democrats were poised to write off that seat. And they can invest their money elsewhere in hopes of saving other seats or picking up a new one.

“There’s not an election tomorrow. There’s not an election next week. There’s not an election for 11 months,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama. “The mistake that this town often makes is behaving as if things are static and acting as if the conditions that pertain today are going to describe the conditions 11 months from today. Things can change for the better and worse.”

Republicans face their own challenges. They have to defend open Senate seats in New Hampshire, Ohio and Missouri, after a spate of retirements of their own last year.

Jim Jordan, an adviser to Mr. Dodd and other Democratic candidates, dismissed the suggestion on Wednesday that the collection of retirements spelled doom for the party.

“These are individual political and personal decisions. I don’t think this is predictive of much or reflective of much, other than a handful of Democrats at the same time deciding that they want to do something else,” Mr. Jordan said. “It is indisputable that the environment is difficult, but it’s not much better for Republicans. They’ve had their share of retirements, too.”

So what blame does Mr. Obama bear for the Democratic troubles? Could he have made a more compelling rationale for his agenda? He is the leader of the party, so the burden to rebuild – and maintain that stronghold of only a year ago – is his.

As with other presidents who have gone before him, the history of midterm elections is running against the White House. The question now, strategists say, is not if Democrats will lose seats, but how many – and how effective Mr. Obama can be in improving the environment for his party over the balance of the year.

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