By Kathleen Hunter
Senate Democratic leaders have a message for their members unsure whether to run for re-election in 2014: Making an early decision will help the party keep control of the chamber.
Leaders of both parties don’t want to be caught off guard as Republicans were last year when Maine Senator Olympia Snowe announced her retirement just eight months before the Nov. 6 election. That helped scuttle Republicans’ plan to gain the Senate majority.
Two Democrats — Iowa’s Tom Harkin and West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller — and one Republican, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, already have announced they won’t seek re-election in 2014. Political strategists in both parties are watching others, including Democrats Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Republican Susan Collins of Maine, for signs that they won’t run again.
“Strategists really want these incumbents to make a decision sooner rather than later so they can put the necessary plans in place to account for that,” said Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst for the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.
Early notice of retirements is particularly important for Democrats, who will have 21 seats up in the Senate next year, compared with 14 for Republicans.
Democrats, who control 55 votes in the 100-member chamber, will be defending seats in seven states President Barack Obama lost last year: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia. A loss of the Senate majority to Republicans would mean that party would control both houses of Congress during Obama’s last two years in office.
Rockefeller, who has served in the Senate since 1985, announced Jan. 11 that he won’t seek a sixth term. He said that he decided it was the “right moment” for him “to find new ways to fight for the causes” in which he believes.
The 75-year-old Commerce Committee chairman’s decision gives Republicans an opportunity to pick up a seat in a state where Obama won just 36 percent of the vote last year.
Seven-term Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, 59, announced Nov. 26 that she would run for the Senate seat. The first Republican woman to represent West Virginia in Congress, Capito on Nov. 6 won 69.8 percent of the vote in her district, which encompasses about one-third of the state, including Charleston, the state capital.
Still, Republicans have lost 21 consecutive Senate races in West Virginia during more than half a century. The state votes Democratic in most statewide elections, including for governor and the state legislature, though voters have favored the Republican candidates in the last three presidential races.
Creating another headache for Democrats, Harkin, 73, announced Jan. 27 that he wouldn’t seek a sixth term in a state that Obama carried by six points in November. Harkin’s move will create the first open Senate seat in Iowa since 1974.
Four-term Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat, announced via his Twitter feed Thursday that he would run for the post.
Republican Reps. Steve King, a leader of the tea party movement in Congress, and Tom Latham, who is close to House Speaker John Boehner, are seen as potential candidates.
“A Democratic retirement rings the dinner bell for Republicans,” said John Pitney, a political scientist and professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “It really gets their attention and raises their hopes that they might gain a seat, particularly in a year that Democrats have a lot more seats at stake than Republicans.”
In 2012 Democrats picked up two seats though they were defending 23, compared with 10 for the Republicans.
With the risk of a primary challenge, Georgia’s Chambliss announced Jan. 25 that he wouldn’t seek a third term. Chambliss, 69, cited frustration with “legislative gridlock” as his reason for stepping aside.
As a member of the so-called Gang of Six, a group of senators who unsuccessfully pushed a $3.7 trillion deficit- cutting plan in 2011, Chambliss was seen as vulnerable in a primary because he proposed revenue increases opposed by many Republicans.
Two House members from Georgia, Tom Price and Paul Broun, had considered running against Chambliss in a primary, according to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. Broun, 66, announced his candidacy Feb. 6.
The non-partisan Cook Political Report in Washington rates the Iowa and West Virginia races as tossups. The group rates the Georgia race as “likely Republican.”
Since 2004, just three incumbent Democratic senators were defeated: South Dakota’s Tom Daschle (then the Senate minority leader) in 2004 and Arkansas’ Blanche Lincoln and Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold in 2010, when Democrats’ Senate majority was cut by six seats.
The chance of a Democrat winning a June 25 special election to fill the seat that Democrat John Kerry vacated when he became Secretary of State improved Feb. 1 when former Republican senator Scott Brown announced he wouldn’t enter the race.
Brown, who won a January 2010 special election to fill the seat of the late Edward Kennedy, was defeated in the November election by Democrat Elizabeth Warren.
Whoever wins the special election would have the advantage of running as an incumbent for a full term in 2014. Democrat William Cowan, who was sworn in yesterday as an interim replacement for Kerry, has said he will serve only until the special election is held
South Dakota’s Johnson, who suffered a brain hemorrhage in December 2006 that kept him away from the Senate for almost a year, has said he will announce in the next several months whether he will seek a fourth term.
According to a report filed with the Federal Election Commission, Johnson raised and spent about $100,000 in the last three months of 2012 and has about $1.2 million in cash on hand.
If he decides to run, he could face a tough race. Former two-term Republican governor Mike Rounds has announced he will seek the post.
Meanwhile, Democrats may have to contend with a primary battle in New Jersey where Lautenberg, 89, plans to seek re- election. Newark Mayor Cory Booker last month formed an exploratory committee aimed at investigating a Senate run. Fox News media personality Geraldo Rivera has said he’s considering entering the race as a Republican.
Lautenberg said next year’s race wasn’t “a matter of principal interest” for him.
“2014 is a good year,” he said, adding that, in the meantime, he had “so much work to do” in the Senate.