Jan 6, 2010 10:23 AM by Domenico Montanaro, NBC Political Reporter

Democrats read the tea leaves -- and jump ship

First Read: News that three prominent Democrats are planning to retire could create the perception of political weakness for the party's leader, President Obama.

Democrats experience a Black Tuesday with retirements from Dodd, Dorgan, and Ritter... While Dodd's exit is probably a political blessing, the same can't be said for Dorgan's or Ritter's decisions... Republicans are one step closer to putting 11 Senate seats in play... What is happening to Democrats in the Mountain West?... And Harold Ford to challenge Gillibrand? Really?

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Dems' Black Tuesday:
Everything comes in threes, right? Within a span of just a few hours yesterday, we learned that three Democratic incumbents -- Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter -- said they won't be running for re-election this fall. Of course, this happens every holiday break: A politician comes back from spending time at home and makes a surprise decision not to run for office. The storyline is inevitable, but the character (in this case, characters) playing the lead role turned out to be the surprise. While most political junkies probably drafted Dodd in the first round of their Retirement Fantasy Draft (and also had David Vitter and even Robert Bennett in mind), we doubt anyone had Dorgan on the board. The biggest story with these retirements? The effect on President Obama. He's the head of the party, and to see so many Democrats in one day decide they don't want to run while he's the leader can create the perception of political weakness -- at the very time when he's trying to strong-arm Dems to give him health care and other major domestic achievements

*** Reading the tea leaves: Collectively, these retirements are a sign that many Democrats are reading the tea leaves and determining that this year is going to be difficult for their party. It's what happened to Democrats in the year preceding the GOP's sweep in 1994. So far, the Democratic Party hasn't seen a flood of retirements -- and it's important to note, as Anita Dunn did on TODAY, that Democrats have just two Senate retirements, compared with six for the GOP -- but the sheer number yesterday leaves a mark. Combine this with the Alabama congressman, Parker Griffith, who switched parties late last month, and it all creates a psychological effect on the party. It demoralizes activists trying to get fired up about the midterms; it also demoralizes donors; and then it could convince other Democrats sitting on the fence to jump off. They might think, "Well, if Byron Dorgan thinks he can't win, and that guy always figures out how to win in tough political environments, then maybe I should bail, too."

*** Good news, bad news: While this overall story isn't a good one for Democrats, Dodd's retirement -- which he'll announce at a press conference at noon ET in East Haddam, CT -- is a political blessing of sorts for the party. As political analyst Charlie Cook tells First Read, "Dodd's retirement is the only good thing that's happened to Democrats this week. Another Democrat, say state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, would have a pretty good chance of winning. [But] Dodd had little chance. Unlike many other states, the problem in Connecticut was the incumbent, not the party." (As it turns out, Blumenthal holds a press conference at 2:30 pm ET.) On the other hand, the Dorgan news is a body blow. He was a player in leadership from a state that's not ordinarily associated with the Democratic Party (however, as Cook reminds us, the last Republican senator from North Dakota was Mark Andrews, who lost in 1986). And Dorgan's retirement makes it easier for Republicans to convince GOP Gov. John Hoeven to run for this Senate seat, giving them another pick-up opportunity. By the way, MSNBC's Ed Schultz interviews Dorgan on his show, which begins at 6:00 pm ET.

*** The first stage of denial: Of course, be wary when the first set of blind quotes you read from party strategists after a retirement is "[Fill in the blank's] decision may turn out to be a blessing." As we wrote above, that's probably true regarding Dodd. But we're also hearing that line about Ritter and also Lt. Gov. Cherry in Michigan, who announced yesterday he wouldn't be running for governor. Sure, it's easy to make the case that both certainly had uphill battles in their races. But remember when we heard all the happy talk from Republicans, who were blindly quoted saying that "trading Mel Martinez for Charlie Crist" in Florida is really a "blessing." Guess what: You think national Republicans wish they weren't dealing with the Crist-vs.-Rubio situation right now? You think national Republicans wish Arlen Specter were still running as a Republican and not given the Democrats their 60th Senate seat? The fact is that retirements, party switches, etc. hurt a party -- period.

*** These go to eleven? As one of us continually stated during the '06 cycle, no political party in recent times has regained control of the House without also taking back the Senate. The trend continued in '06, when Dems won BOTH the House and Senate. And it has been one of the reasons why we've thought the GOP's chances of taking back the House this year are slim -- because also picking up 11 Senate seats seems next to impossible. But Dorgan's retirement now gives Republicans legitimate shots in at least eight contests: AR, CO, CT, DE, IL, NV, ND, and PA. (Of course, Dodd's retirement probably diminishes the GOP's chances in CT.) And remember that Toss-up Senate races always tend to break in one direction. But for Republicans to have an opportunity to put 11 seats in play, they'll need to find three or four more legitimate targets out of California, New York (Gillibrand's seat), Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin. And, of course, there's the "Massachusetts miracle" two weeks from now...



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