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Watch for Retirements

Large numbers of House member retirements concentrated in one party would be telling.

Just over a month from now, members of Congress will be returning from their "Summer District Work Period," aka the August recess, ready to take on the legislative items remaining on their agenda as they head toward adjournment sometime in late fall.

Politically speaking, however, September is more important than the final months of 2007. That month is when we will begin to see whether an unusually large number of House members will opt to retire and, if so, whether the retirements are concentrated in one party, and in competitive or potentially competitive districts.

Retirements are an extremely important element -- perhaps greater than the Iraq war -- in determining what is likely to happen in next year's House elections. Although the same is somewhat true in the Senate, the much smaller universe of potential retirees and the historically lower re-election rates for incumbents mean that the level of voluntary retirements will be a bit less pivotal in that chamber's 2008 elections.

It's difficult to imagine that many House Democrats will retire. After all, many of these folks waited 12 years to climb back into the majority and get their hands on a gavel. Except for House Democrats who decide to run for the Senate or for governor, or who may face some dreaded disease, very few are likely to retire so soon after returning to the promised land.

But House Republicans who have tasted power but now may see their chances of recapturing their gavels diminishing have little incentive to run again. Those facing potentially tough races may wonder whether the struggle would be worth it.

Although minority party senators would obviously rather be in the majority, they have the power to filibuster. In the House, being relegated to minority status is a much worse fate. And the slimmer the minority's chances of regaining power soon, the more unpleasant it is.

Republican officials and operatives are getting very nervous about the increasing likelihood of a large number of GOP retirements from the House. All retirements are not equal, of course. A retirement in a safe district doesn't affect party control of the chamber, but one in a swing district definitely could. And if a lopsided number of Republicans in swing districts decide to retire, they will hand the GOP a huge challenge and the Democratic Party a huge opportunity.

Through the 2004 elections, congressional Republicans enjoyed a large fundraising advantage, allowing them to employ overwhelming force at the national party level. In open-seat contests and in the few races where GOP incumbents were seriously endangered, the national party was able to go in early and, in many cases, virtually destroy the Democratic candidate. Money was the Republican Party's ace in the hole.

That began to change during the 2005-2006 election cycle as the Democratic House and Senate campaign committees became more competitive financially. And the Democrats' resources have continued to grow. Through the end of June, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee outraised the National Republican Congressional Committee $36.4 million to $29.5 million. And the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pulled in $31.2 million compared with the National Republican Senatorial Committee's $15.7 million.

The Republican National Committee has maintained financial superiority over the Democratic National Committee, $46.4 million to $30 million. In presidential election years, however, the national party committees tend to focus primarily on their White House candidates, not on House and Senate campaigns.

The more House Republicans retire, the more difficult a task the House GOP will face in stretching its limited resources, and the more likely it will have to play defense rather than go after potentially vulnerable Democratic lawmakers.

If House Republicans don't make a rush for the exits after all, then the bottom is less likely to fall out for the GOP. In that scenario, the party would lose some seats, but the situation would hardly be Armageddon. However, if a very anti-Republican environment triggers a landslide of retirements in competitive districts and if the party remains at a fairly dramatic financial disadvantage, the 2008 election could be devastating for House Republicans.