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The Great Republican Retirement Party

DeLay's exit is part of a groundswell of Republicans retiring from public office. Is it a trend?
 
 
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In a recent interview with Time magazine, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay explained his frame of mind behind his decision to resign from the House of Representatives months before his office expired: "I'm a realist. I've been around awhile. I can evaluate political situations." DeLay added that he relied on divine counsel to make his decision:

Time: You said you prayed about it?

DeLay: Oh, yeah. Ohhhh, yeah. (chuckles) I spent a LOT of time praying about [it].

In all likelihood so did the House Democrats who have been out of majority power since 1994. Tom DeLay's resignation came under a cloud of federal and Texas state investigations into his activities and those of his closest associates. He is the second Republican to depart the 109th Congress -- the first was Randy Cunningham, who pleaded guilty for tax evasion and accepting bribes, and exited stage right last December.

Democrats have a chance to see how voters respond to cries of the "Republican culture of corruption" in the April 11 special election for Cunningham's seat in California's 50th District (San Diego), which is being contested by Democrat Francine Busby against Republican candidates like Howard Kaloogian. Kaloogian is a former state assemblyman whose campaign has come under fire from posting misleading photos to portray a blissfully calm Iraq on his website and listing false endorsements from Republican officials and conservative organizations.

But while those two resignations have seized the headlines, there has already been a slow trickle of retirement announcements coming from 17 longtime Republicans. Many of the retirees are powerful silverbacks, committee chairs like Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., of the House Science Committee; Bill Thomas, R-Calif., of the Ways and Means Committee; and Henry Hyde, R-Ill., of the International Relations Committee. Hyde nearly lost his seat in 2004 when an insurgent grassroots challenge with virtually no funds or media attention received 44 percent of the vote.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, one of the most recent to announce his retirement, is leaving after 24 years in office. Boehlert's 24th District in New York narrowly went for George Bush in the 2004 election with 53 percent of the vote. Three Democrats are facing off in the state's Sept. 12 primary for the House nomination.

Nine House Democrats have announced retirements so far this year. A recent competitive House political race chart from the Cook Political Report newsletter listed four open races in congressional seats vacated by Democrats as potentially winnable by Republicans, while suggesting that 10 open races in seats vacated by Republicans stand a good shot at being taken by Democrats.

While DeLay's resignation from Congress leaves just one seat open, the story of his descent -- from temporarily stepping down as majority leader while under indictment in his Texas redistricting case, to losing his leadership status permanently, to watching his closest staff face federal charges in the Abramoff investigations, to his outright resignation from Congress -- is the perfect tonic for a Democratic Party seeking to pin the country's woes on 12 years of Republican leadership in the House. Coming against a backdrop of a highly unpopular foreign occupation in Iraq and a president whose popularity ratings are lurking in the mid-30s, DeLay's actions could instigate a raft of new announcements.

The spate of retirements is not part of the GOP's strategic planning to sustain a majority in Congress. National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) chairman Tom Reynolds told reporters this March, "I want our members to stay put. … I expect a couple more [retirement announcements]."

Even professional GOP cheerleaders are having a hard time seeing any silver lining in the cascade of Republican retirements. Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told The Hill , "If you look at past experience, it would suggest that you tend not to get a last-minute rush" of retirements. "I think that actually the scandals, the problems, the headaches may cause a number of people two or three months from now to decide that maybe it's time for a change, maybe they need to spend more time with their families. … I think we could see up to 40."

It has also been rumored in Republican circles that fallout from corruption scandals related to lobbyist Jack Abramoff could force a retirement announcement in the Senate from Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns.

The 19 open seats Republicans now have to defend (including Cunningham's) in the 2006 elections are not as many as the 31 Democrats had to defend in 1994, and 16 of those 19 seats were carried by George Bush in 2000 and 2004. But with Democrats in Congress now polling over 50 percent with a historic 15-point lead in a generic ballot seven months before the general elections, there's a lot of time for incumbent Republicans to consider the future and whether it might be better spent with the family.

Jan Frel is an AlterNet staff writer.