Will There Be a Democrat Exodus from House by January 31?

“Have you heard Abercrombie is resigning?” veteran political consultant Nathan Wuertzel e-mailed me late Friday afternoon, just as the word came down that veteran Rep. Neil Abercrombie would resign from Congress to campaign full-term for the Democratic nomination for governor of Hawaii in 2010.

Wuertzel had good reason to sound breathless. Just a month ago, he had brought me to lunch with City Councilman Charles Djou, the stronger-than-usual Republican candidate for Abercrombie’s Honolulu-based 1st District.  Now Djou was thrust into a special election likely to be scheduled for early 2010 and sure to be watched by the national press.

But national political factors transcend the sudden Abercrombie exit and the possibility of the state that claims Barack Obama sending a Republican to the House for only the second time since it entered the union. Could it mean the start of an exodus en masse of Democratic incumbents from the House over the next two months? And will that create fresh opportunities for Republican pickups and a GOP takeover of the House next year?  

Abercrombie’s surprise announcement came one day after Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), at age 53 and after six terms in Congress, announced he was relinquishing his 3rd District (Vancouver) seat in 2010.  Baird’s decision means Republicans have a chance at picking up the district held previously by stalwart conservative Rep. Linda Smith (R.-Wash).

A week before Baird, it was eleven-termer John Tanner of Tennessee, a leading “Blue Dog” Democrat, who said he wasn’t running again.  Tanner faced a stronger-than-ever challenge from gospel singer Stephen Fincher, a Republican who had already raised more than $380,000.  And a week before Tanner, it was Kansas Rep. Dennis Moore’s turn.  After defeating all kinds of spirited Republican opponents to win seven terms, Moore had had enough and said he was stepping down in 2010.

And three Democratic House Members running for the Senate — Charlie Melancon (La.), Joe Sestak (Penn.), and Paul Hodes (N.H.) — are leaving their seats to run for the Senate.  In each of the now-open districts, Republicans are better than even money to make pickups.

It’s not at all clear that this is a sign that House Democrats are bailing out of fear of a Republican tidal wave.  But it seems a good bet to say that if an exodus en masse of Democrats from the House is coming, it will be clear by the end of January. The early filing deadlines of many states, plus the needs of Democratic Party leaders to recruit fresh candidates for open seats, necessitate early retirement announcements if they are coming.

And just the talk of this causes sleepless nights for Democratic Party leaders in Washington and in states across the country.  In 1993-94, no less than 26 Democratic House incumbents announced they were either retiring or seeking other offices.  Republicans went on to pick up a handsome 22 of the open House districts, their performance in open districts being a key ingredient to their historic capture of the House in 1994.

At this point in December of 2007, thirteen Republican House members (including former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois) had announced they were leaving in ’08.  Democrats won more of the seats than GOPers retained and the Democratic majority in the House was enhanced that year.

As to who’s next, speculation on Capitol Hill centers on such veteran Democratic lawmakers as Reps. Leonard Boswell (Iowa), Ike Skelton (Mo.), John Spratt (S.C.), Alan Mollohan (WVA), Marion Berry (Ark.), Vic Snyder (Ark.), Paul Kanjorski (Penn.), and Bart Gordon (Tenn.).  

Possibly anticipating that 28-year incumbent Kanjorski will leave his Wilkes-Barre district, Hazleton Mayor and nearly successful ’08 GOP nominee Lou Barletta recently announced he will run again for Congress in 2010.  Barletta is best known nationally for his support of city ordinances that toughen punishment for employers and landlords who knowingly hire or rent to illegal immigrants.

“And the Republicans already have a strong candidate against Bart Gordon,”  former Rep. Van Hilleary (R.-Tenn), who represented the neighboring district to Gordon’s from 1994-2002. “If Bart retires, that’s a pickup for us.”

Open districts are critical to the party out of the White House making gains.  If the retirements come in big numbers, they come in December or January before the election year.  

So the question now is obvious: “Who’s next?”