U.S. Senator Tim Johnson’s decision to retire after the 2014 election makes the Democrats’ job of holding their Senate majority tougher.
Johnson, 66, the Senate banking committee chairman, is the second Democrat from a state won by Republican nominee Mitt Romney last year to say he won’t seek re-election in 2014. His announcement yesterday means that in Republican-leaning states, his party must defend those two open seats and support five incumbents running for re-election.
“I will be 68 years old at the end of this term, and it is time for me to say goodbye,” Johnson said at a news conference in his home state of South Dakota.
His announcement sets up a possible fight over who would head the Senate Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs Committee -- which oversees financial regulation legislation -- in the 2015-16 congressional session.
Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, next in line to be chairman if Democrats maintain their Senate majority, may opt instead to lead the Armed Services Committee. Another top Democrat on the panel, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, may decide to retain his Foreign Relations Committee chairmanship.
Other Democrats in line for the post are New York Senator Charles Schumer, whose constituents include Wall Street, and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, an advocate for breaking up the largest U.S. banks. The panel’s ranking Republican is Mike Crapo of Idaho.
In all, 21 Senate seats now held by Democrats are up for re-election next year, and five of them have been opened up by retirement announcements. Among Republicans, 14 Senate seats will be on the ballot and only one of the party’s incumbents -- three-term Senator Susan Collins of Maine -- is seeking re-election in a state Romney lost to President Barack Obama. So far, Republicans must defend two open seats, in Georgia and Nebraska, both of which Romney carried.
“The battle for the Senate will come down to Democrats’ ability to hold seats in Republican-leaning states,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report, based in Washington. “A lot depends on how popular the president is” next year “because if people are dissatisfied, their option is to vote against the president’s party.”
At stake is a second-term agenda laid out by Obama that includes a revision of immigration laws, gun restrictions and a rewrite of tax laws and such entitlement programs as Medicare and Medicaid to curb the budget deficit.
Since Republicans won control of the House in 2010, the Senate’s Democratic majority, now 55-45, has been a bulwark for the White House in blunting proposals advanced by House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and members of his party.
Republican leadership of the Senate would give that party the ability to block Obama’s agenda or have significantly more influence over the scope and details of major legislative initiatives during his final two years in office.
Republican control of both chambers of Congress “would exacerbate the kind of gridlock we already have,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.
Still, even if Democrats lose their Senate majority, Republicans probably wouldn’t control the 60 votes needed to advance major legislation in the chamber.
“It’s not clear to me it would make that much difference in terms of legislation getting passed because not much is getting passed already,” Abramowitz said.
Johnson, a three-term senator, suffered a brain hemorrhage in December 2006. He returned to the Senate in September 2007 and won re-election in 2008. The hemorrhage impaired Johnson’s speech and he uses an electric scooter to navigate between the Senate floor and his office.
“Always a fighter, Tim’s return to the Senate floor after a life-threatening brain injury was a powerful moment and his recovery continues to inspire us all,” Obama said in a statement. “I look forward to working with Senator Johnson as he finishes his third term.”
Johnson’s announcement follows Senator Jay Rockefeller’s decision in January not to seek re-election in West Virginia, which Romney carried last year.
The five Democratic incumbents running in states Romney won are Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Max Baucus of Montana and Mark Begich of Alaska.
In addition to facing Republican-leaning electorates, these Democrats could be plagued by the “six-year itch,” said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst at the non-partisan Cook Political Report in Washington. Since 1958, the party of all but one two-term president has lost Senate seats in the administration’s sixth year, she said.
The exception came in 1998 when there was no net change in the number of Senate Democratic seats.
“The public’s view of Republicans was very negative” at that time because they had “shut the government down three years earlier and tried to impeach” Democratic President Bill Clinton, Duffy said.
Democratic Senators Carl Levin of Michigan, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, and Tom Harkin of Iowa also have announced plans to retire after 2014. The two Republicans who have said they won’t run next year are Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.
Early notice of retirements will give Democrats more time to recruit strong candidates and raise money.
“It’s a lot better to know now” about a retirement than “a few weeks before the filing deadline,” said David Rohde, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “The seats that are vacant vary in how difficult it will be for Democrats to recruit a very strong candidate,” he said.
Democrats want to avoid being caught flat-footed as Republicans were last year when Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine waited until eight months before the Nov. 6 election to bow out of her re-election race, hurting the party’s chances to identify a replacement candidate. Maine voters elected a former governor to the seat, Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
In South Dakota, two Democratic candidates are well-positioned to run, said Ben Nesselhuf, chairman of the state party.
Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, elected three times to the state’s at-large House seat before losing in the 2010 election, “could run for any office in the state and win,” Nesselhuf said.
Johnson’s son, Brendan, who is now the U.S. attorney for South Dakota, “is probably the best natural campaigner I’ve ever seen,” Nesselhuf said in a telephone interview.
Even before Johnson’s retirement announcement, both Rothenberg and the Cook political reports rated the seat a “tossup” for 2014. Mike Rounds, a former two-term Republican governor, announced last year he is running.
Republicans may confront the same pitfalls in South Dakota that helped cost them control of the Senate in the 2012 and 2010 elections, Duffy said.
“The opportunities are all there, but do they repeat the mistakes they made in the last two cycles by nominating candidates who are too conservative to win statewide?” she said.
Last November, voters in Missouri and Indiana split their support between Romney and Democratic Senate candidates after the Republican Senate candidates -- Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana -- made controversial remarks about rape and abortion.
“Democrats are not in a great position,” yet “Republicans have not demonstrated the ability to take advantage of the gift Democrats have handed them,” Duffy said.
In South Dakota, Rounds may face the sort of primary challenge that led to the nominations of Aiken and Mourdock.
Anti-tax Tea Party activists are urging Kristi Noem, the state’s two-term House member, to challenge him in a primary. Matt Hoskins, director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, said in a statement that his group wouldn’t support Rounds and will seek to recruit a “principled conservative leader” to challenge him.
In Iowa, Republican Representative Steve King hasn’t announced a Senate candidacy in the race to succeed Harkin, “but he is busy scaring people away” from seeking the party’s nomination, Duffy said. A co-founder of the House Tea Party caucus, King “is probably not an ideal statewide candidate,” Duffy said.
Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager and chairman of Organizing for Action, the non-profit group organized to promote the president’s second-term agenda, noted that as the 2012 campaign was gearing up, many analysts predicted that Democrats would lose Senate seats in the elections, and perhaps lose control of the chamber. Instead, the party added two seats to its majority.
Democrats “will hold the Senate” in 2014, he said in an interview at a Bloomberg Government luncheon in Washington yesterday.
In gauging specific races, he said “we can’t really judge this until we see who comes out of the primaries” on the Republican side and the outcome of Democrats’ candidate recruitment process for open seats.