WASHINGTON – Louisiana Democratic Sen. John Breaux's (search) decision Monday not to seek re-election dealt a huge blow to his party's already faint hope of regaining a Senate majority, some political analysts told Fox News.
"The Democrats have a realistic chance of taking the Senate in the next cycle, but it is a very small chance," said U.S. News & World Report senior writer Michael Barone. "It's as if you were dealt the jack of diamonds and you were trying to draw four cards and get a royal flush."
Breaux, 59, announced Monday that he would not seek re-election for a fourth term, indicating that he is interested in a "second career."
But in his usually candid manner, Breaux, who is known as a negotiator willing to cross the aisle, indicated some disillusion with the Senate, saying Democrats are whip-sawed by liberal interest groups who oppose the prescription drug benefit (search) in Medicare that he helped craft with the Bush White House.
"I have concerns about some of the things that are happening in the Congress. I think that we've become too polarized," Breaux told Fox News. "I think both sides spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about how to defeat the other side. I mean, Congress should not be like the Super Bowl, where you always have to have one team that's going to win and one team that necessarily has to lose."
But in politics, the number of players on each side continuously contributes to odds making over the passage of bills. Democrats need to hold 41 of their 48 seats in order to keep an effective tool that was employed several times this year: the filibuster.
"In the Senate, [Democrats] are going to be wanting to hold enough seats so that they can get those 41 votes to stop action on many issues. And they've got a couple Democrats who often don't vote with the majority of the party on those issues, so they don't have too big a margin of error. They may be at risk of losing the effective use of the filibuster weapon on many issues," Barone said.
Breaux's departure makes him the fifth Southern Democrat to bolt the Senate after his term ends next year. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) said he wanted to focus solely on running for president. Bob Graham (search) of Florida, who also briefly ran for president and underwent heart surgery early this year, announced in November he wants to spend more time with his family and concentrate on national security and training future Florida leaders.
Amid frequent criticism of the White House, 81-year-old Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (search), who until this year was the junior senator from South Carolina, said he won't seek an eighth term. South Carolina has been turning increasingly Republican over the last few years, and observers said Hollings recognized the numbers in his state did not bode well for him.
Zell Miller (search) of Georgia is leaving the Senate after only one term in which he sided frequently with President Bush and Republicans on issues ranging from tax cuts to the war in Iraq. Miller has endorsed Bush for re-election.
Breaux's retirement means only one incumbent is left to defend a Southern Democratic seat -- Blanche Lambert Lincoln (search) of Arkansas. Analysts say the loss of the incumbents in those five Southern seats could make it more difficult for Democrats to hold their ground next year.
"Republicans have a fighting chance or a very good chance at one level or another in all five of those states, so it's a big problem for Democrats," said elections analyst Ron Faucheux.
All in all, Democrats must defend 14 seats and try to keep the five now considered open in order to keep their current 48 seats, with an additional Democratic-leaning independent. But, even with the extra challenges, Republicans are by no means assured of a walkover next year.
But Illinois has been turning progressively more Democratic — voting for Al Gore in 2000 and having elected a Democratic governor last year — and Republicans are expected to lose the seat currently held by Fitzgerald. The Oklahoma race is still considered uncertain.
On top of that, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (search) must run for election after being appointed by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, whose seat was left open when he moved from the Senate to the statehouse in January.
Sen. Murkowski faces an uphill race against Democrat Tony Knowles, the term-limited former governor of Alaska and a Yale fraternity brother of President Bush.
Breaux told Fox News that Democrats can survive the open races, but only if a centrist tops the national ticket.
"I mean if Howard Dean (search) wants to take us back to the left and gets the nomination, I think that would be something that would be a defining moment. I think that that would not be the right way to go," he said.
Thune lost the Senate race against Democrat Tim Johnson (search) in 2002 by 524 votes. On Tuesday, he announced he was not going to seek the House seat being vacated by convicted Rep. Bill Janklow (search). Republican sources told Fox News that Thune is recruiting staff for a campaign against Daschle next year.
"Tom Daschle may have been hurt somewhat by becoming more closely identified with the national Democratic Party rather than being a senator who is serving South Dakota and tending to local issues. I think that could be seriously contested," Barone said.