WASHINGTON – Despite excited chatter and speculation ahead of the November midterm election, open congressional seats ripe for the picking are slim. In fact, the number of retirements announced so far for the midterm race is the lowest since Lyndon Johnson was president.
"It's fallen off dramatically," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and editor of the online "Crystal Ball" tip sheet. Sabato said the number of retiring members of Congress this year is the lowest since 1966.
"One factor is the Republican and Democratic leadership have been encouraging members to hang on — it's so much easier to re-elect an incumbent, almost any incumbent, with the exception of those entrenched in scandal, but you would be surprised even how many of those get re-elected, too," Sabato said.
In every election, the number of open seats, which inevitably includes retirements, resignations, members appointed to posts in the administration or members running for Senate or for seats outside Congress, is watched carefully by both parties as an avenue to boost their numbers.
Thirty-one members of the House and Senate have so far announced they are leaving on or before the election: 14 House and Senate members are retiring, nine members of the House are running for governor in their states, seven more are running for Senate and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, is resigning.
In 2002, the last midterm election, 40 members of Congress retired or left to run for other office, according to Sabato.
Political analysts say they are not surprised by how few lawmakers are leaving, given the hardball nature of this year's elections. Democrats need a net win of only 15 seats to take the majority in the House and six seats to retake the Senate. Though oddsmakers say the Democrats' chances of reaching those marks are not strong, the slim majorities in both chambers have forced party leadership to pressure members to think twice before retiring this year.
"The less open seats, the less the turnover," said Dave Winston, Republican pollster and strategist.
"I'm not necessarily surprised that there are a lower number of retirements than usual because again, you've seen Rahm Emanuel on the Democratic side and Tom Reynolds on the other side making sure there aren't," Winston said, referring to the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees. "Especially when you are dealing with a potentially more volatile election."
Republicans are particularly vulnerable, say analysts, because public opinion polls have almost uniformly shown they have fallen out of favor with American voters. Many voters say they are leaning toward the idea of a government divided between the two main political parties, and have indicated they may trust Democrats more on key issues like the war in Iraq and the economy, traditionally staples of the GOP.
According to a FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll released April 6, 29 percent of Americans say they approve of the job Republicans in Congress are doing, down from 34 percent approval a month earlier and 37 percent at the beginning of the year. But congressional Democrats in the same poll fare equally low: 29 percent of voters approve of the job their doing, down from 36 percent in March and 39 percent in early January.
However, a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday showed that 51 percent of voters think Democrats could do a better job of dealing with important issues, compared with 37 percent who chose Republicans. In that poll, Democrats were more trusted by varying degrees to deal with the situation in Iraq, health care, prescription drug benefits for the elderly, the economy, immigration, the War on Terror and corruption in Washington.
Those numbers, plus a majority of Americans believing that the country is on the "wrong track," has put pressure on Republicans.
"The rule of thumb is the lower the approval rating for Congress, the lower the approval rating for the party in control," said Mike Franc, congressional expert for the Heritage Foundation. "The more vulnerable the seat, the greater pressure to stick it out. If it's vacated, it's most likely to flip to the other side."
That could explain why the open seats make up only a small percentage of the 30 to 40 races this year deemed competitive by analysts.
Nonetheless, some of the competitive races include seats left behind by Republican Reps. Bob Beauprez, who is running for governor in Colorado, and Jim Nussle, who is running for governor in Iowa; Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland, who is running for governor in Ohio; and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Republican Reps. Jim Kolbe of Arizona and Henry Hyde of Illinois, who are all retiring.
Ed Patru, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, acknowledged the challenges in the coming months.
"History does not look favorably on the party in control in the second midterm elections … the atmospherics today are not great," said Patru, who added that keeping retirements to a minimum has been Reynolds' "central focus" as chairman this year.
But while current political winds are not blowing in Republicans' favor, the power of incumbency remains strong, putting fewer seats overall in play than ever before, say experts. Redistricting over the last 20 years has helped to carve out districts friendly to both parties, leaving fewer "swing" districts.
Incumbents have myriad advantages ranging from fund-raising to the ability to bring home the bacon with hefty earmarks to please voters back home. Rob Ritchie, head of the Center for Voting and Democracy, said all those factors combine to create a Congress that has fewer retirements, less turnover and less accountability to voters.
"We've had one change in the House in the last 50 years," he said, referring to the turnover in control to the Republicans in 1994.
John Fortier, political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, said it is still too early to judge the 2006 elections on its retirements, as more may come.
"There are always some people who wait to retire at strategic moments," he said. "They might be waiting to retire at the last minute" so that a relative or protégé can step in and run with a head start.
Others, for instance, might fall victim to the ongoing scandal involving Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who recently pleaded guilty to bank fraud charges in Florida and is at the center of a wide-ranging corruption probe related to his schemes on Capitol Hill.
Reynolds warned rank-and-file members away from last-minute surprises, given that in 2004, five GOP House members announced their retirements late in the year, forcing the party to spend more than $12 million to keep the seats, The Associated Press reported recently.
Patru said this was a lesson learned. "[Reynolds] says to members all the time that we're in the majority now in Congress and to enjoy it. This is the time to get things done."