Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and a Democratic Party stalwart in the Senate, is set to announce today that he will not seek re-election this year, according to a party strategist familiar with his plans.
Sen. Dodd's decision was the latest in a string of big-name Democratic retirements revealed Tuesday as the party struggles to contend with a challenging political climate.
Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said he, too, would retire after this year, unexpectedly saddling his fellow Democrats with a wide-open race that could be tough to win in a Republican-leaning state.
And Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, viewed as a rising Democratic star after a 2006 election victory that laid the groundwork for a Democratic pickup there in the 2008 presidential race, will announce today that he will bow out rather than seek re-election.
Another setback came in Michigan, where the Democratic front-runner for governor, Lt. Gov. John Cherry, announced that he would not run after all. Mr. Cherry, strategists believe, was too closely associated with the state's unpopular Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who is blamed by many voters for a jobless rate that is far higher than the national average. The departure of Sen. Dodd, first elected to the Senate in 1980, carried the most symbolic value because of his seniority and his close association with the financial system bailout and other economic policies.
He has drawn criticism for backing a measure that allowed the embattled insurance giant AIG to dole out bonuses to its executives.
Sen. Dodd, once closely associated with the insurance and hedge-fund industry, is one of the highest profile Democratic casualties of the financial crisis and its political fallout. Under fire for receiving what some charged was a sweetheart mortgage from Countrywide Financial, and for land deals in Ireland, Sen. Dodd had tried to reinvent himself as a populist, going after big banks and credit-card companies from his perch as chairman of the Senate banking committee.
The senator's retirement underscores how quickly the party's fortunes have dimmed. Just three years ago, Sen. Dodd was planning a White House bid and was asserting himself as an expert on how to fix the economy. But in recent months he has fought prostate cancer, and, with the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, lost his best friend in the Senate.
Sen. Dodd had been losing in polls to his potential Republican challengers, and some Democratic strategists speculated Tuesday that his retirement actually bolsters the party's chances of retaining the seat this year. There are strong candidates in the GOP primary, including former Rep. Rob Simmons and wrestling executive Linda McMahon, who has said she would spend tens of millions of her own money to win the seat.
The state's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, is considered a strong candidate.
Gov. Ritter's approval ratings have plummeted amid a souring economy. Strategists hoped that his departure might clear the way for a stronger candidate, such as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former Colorado senator.
Sen. Dorgan has been elected three times to the U.S. Senate, winning 68% of the vote in 2004, and his seat wasn't clearly vulnerable. Republicans say the retirement greatly boosts their chances of cutting into the Democrats' advantage in the chamber. Mr. Dorgan is the first elected Democratic senator to announce his retirement this year.
Several House Democrats from conservative districts have said they will step down.
A series of retirements can often foreshadow a bad year for a party, and Democrats acknowledge that the struggling economy, a conservative backlash against Obama administration policies--especially on health care--and other factors make it likely they will lose seats.
Democrats have been quick to point out that more Republicans than Democrats have announced their retirements so far in each chamber.
Every Senate race has taken on heightened significance this year, since Democrats' current majority of 60 votes, including two independents who usually side with them, is the bare minimum the party needs to break Republican filibusters.
The 60-vote majority has enabled Democrats to pass a health overhaul through the Senate despite unbroken opposition by Republicans. Sen. Dorgan, 67 years old, has held public office since he was 26 and said he had intended to run again this year. But he concluded recently that he wanted to pursue other interests. "I have written two books and have an invitation from a publisher to write two more books," he said in a written statement. "I would like to do some teaching and would also like to work on energy policy in the private sector."
North Dakota Republicans had been encouraging the state's popular GOP governor, John Hoeven, to run against Sen. Dorgan.
A Dec. 15 Rasmussen poll showed Mr. Hoeven, in a hypothetical match-up, with a significant lead over the senator.
Mr. Hoeven hasn't announced his intentions and the campaign hadn't begun in earnest. Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Sen. Dorgan's departure is a sign of trouble for congressional Democrats.
He contended that, as the 2010 elections approach, many of them are deciding to simply leave office rather than face certain defeat.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Monday that he respected Sen. Dorgan's "decision to pursue other interests in his life."
President Barack Obama said in a statement: "From fighting for our energy future to standing with North Dakota's families through difficult economic times, Sen. Dorgan has been a trusted leader for the people of his state."
Democrats quickly began looking for a viable candidate in North Dakota to run in what could be an uphill campaign. Party leaders believe that their best hope is Rep. Earl Pomeroy, North Dakota's sole House member.
Rep. Pomeroy couldn't be reached to comment. Mr. Dorgan has been a relatively liberal senator, despite coming from a state that in recent presidential elections has strongly supported the Republican candidate. North Dakota supported Sen. John McCain over Barack Obama by 53% to 45% in 2008. Democrats recognize they are likely to fall below the 60-vote Senate threshold in November. Every additional seat lost will make it harder for them to push through their agenda. Another Democratic senator, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, is expected to face a tough race.
The party also has a few appointed senators who aren't running this year, which in some cases may present an opening for Republicans. Republicans face their own vacancies in November, with six GOP senators retiring, including in competitive states like Ohio, New Hampshire and Missouri.