Can the Dems Be Saved?

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CQ’s two lead stories today illuminate some of the Democrats’ problems going in to the 2010 elections. The first story is about Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), a Democrat in a state that’s dominated by Democrats on the state level but has been voting for Republicans in presidential elections for a long time. It was only a matter of time before that trend started to affect congressional elections: Lincoln might be in trouble even if the economy was in better shape and congressional Democrats were more popular.

The second story, though, is about the retirement of Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.):

Rhode Island’s 1st district is strongly Democratic territory, although in the current political environment the party is not guaranteed of holding the seat. The party’s chances of keeping his father’s Senate seat were considered safe before Sen. Scott P. Brown ’s (R-Mass.) upset victory last month.

Republicans have made noise about targeting Kennedy from time to time, but he has not had a serious re-election challenge since winning in 1994. No doubt there will be several Democrats interested in running for his seat. On the Republican side, state Rep. John Loughlin (R) made his bid official last week.

Kennedy is exactly the kind of Democrat that the party really doesn’t want to retire this election cycle. He holds a normally safe seat that is vulnerable because of the “current political environment.” If Kennedy waited for a year in which Democrats were faring better, the party would be much more likely to hang on to the seat. Last month, 538’s Andrew Gelman highlighted this problem, arguing that Democratic incumbents should try to retire in years when Democrats are more popular:

Consider 2008. As expected, it was a good year for the Democrats, and so it was a logical time for them, as a party, to make some investments in new, young candidates. 2008 was the time they should’ve encourage lots of their incumbents to retire, because in that year they could win a lot of these districts without needing the incumbency advantage (estimated to be about 10% of the vote, i.e., enough to take you from 50% to 60%). Conversely, 2008 was the time for the Republican Party to hold on to what it had, and to keep all their incumbents in, trying to hold out until 2010 when the pendulum might swing back in their favor. But we didn’t see that—actually, something like 30 Republican House members retired in 2008. Republicans retiring, Democrats sticking around—that was a recipe for big Democratic gains. But then in 2010, or 2014, or whatever year it is when the Democrats get wiped out—then a bunch of their incumbents will probably retire, and boy will the Democrats wished they had put in younger incumbents back in 2008 when they had a chance!

This is exactly right. It’s hard to coordinate these kind of actions, but the Republicans seem to be actually doing a pretty good job this cycle. A lot of their incumbents are retiring. Because it’s a good cycle for the GOP, the party has a very good chance of holding many of those open seats this year—and having some younger incumbents in place for 2012, when the economy (and the Dems) could be on the upswing and Barack Obama will be back on the ticket.

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