Craig, Retirements give Republicans '08 Heartburn

Larry Craig, the disgraced Republican senator from Idaho, raised Republican eyebrows Thursday when he announced he had changed his mind and would serve out his Senate term despite a promise last month to resign by Sept. 30.

The good news for Republicans is that Craig said he won't be seeking re-election. Idaho is a reliably Republican state and the GOP should have no problem finding a replacement.

But Craig was not the only Republican to announce Thursday that he would not be seeking re-election in 2008. Sen. Pete Domenici announced at a press conference in New Mexico Thursday that he won't be seeking a seventh term because of his age and a degenerative brain disease he is fighting.

It is not just Domenici's seat that Republicans have to worry about. This is the third time in the past month that a popular, long-serving Republican from a so-called "purple" state will be hanging up his spurs. GOP Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado is also resigning.

It was always going to be a tough election next year for Republicans to the Senate, but with a spate of retirements, it is looking like the bad year could turn downright apocalyptic.

Craig's decision to stay in the Senate to, as he put it, "serve Idaho in the Senate," is certainly causing heartburn for Republicans anxious to be rid of the scandal right now. They have made no bones that his guilty plea for misdemeanor disturbance of the peace and an alleged attempted contretemps in a Minneapolis airport bathroom means he should make himself scarce.

Sen. John Ensign, who is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, questioned Craig's decision to stay put for the moment.

"I think it is best for the U.S. Senate. I think it is best for his party that if he just keeps his word. He gave us his word that he would do something. He's backing out on us, and I don't think it is the right thing to do," Ensign said.

But from a strictly political standpoint, Domenici's announcement is perhaps more troubling than Craig's for Republicans.

New Mexico is not Idaho, and it is a toss-up as to which party has the upper hand in claiming his seat. New Mexico Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, for instance, is mounting a long-shot presidential campaign at the moment. But if he jumped into the Senate race instead, he would be a tough candidate for Republicans to beat.

Rep. Heather Wilson, who has only eeked out victories in races for her New Mexico congressional seat in recent elections, is the most likely Republican candidate to attempt to replace Domenici. But she, like Domenici, was embroiled in the imbroglio over how the Bush administration fired .U.S. attorneys, particularly former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias in New Mexico.

The issue -- whether Wilson put Iglesias under undue political pressure when she inquired about sealed documents in a case involving New Mexico Democrats. That scandal was already playing a role in Wilson's bid to retake her seat in the House.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told reporters Friday that he thinks "the wind is at our backs." Schumer said that issues like Iraq and the president's recent veto of an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program are helping Democrats.

Domenici joins Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, all noted Republicans who would likely have been easily re-elected from states where Democrats may have a good shot of picking up the seat. All have broken with their party and the White House, calling to varying degrees for a change of policy in Iraq.

The retirements are compounding a numerical disadvantage Republicans were already going to have to face -- there are 22 Senate seats for Republicans to defend in November 2008, compared with just 12 for Democrats.

Elections are usually easier for incumbents, but as the state election campaigns begin, the fact that Democrats seem to have the upper hand in fundraising, coupled with a general public malaise (if not antipathy) directed at President Bush over the Iraq War and the economy, is flipping that logic on its head.

Three of the Republicans retiring from battleground states had already broken, at least rhetorically, with Bush on the war in Iraq.

Hagel, who at one time was rumored to be considering a presidential bid either as a Republican or an independent, has been voting with Democrats to set a withdrawal date for U.S. troops.

Warner, an emeritus member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had broken with the administration on Iraq verbally but still had been voting with Republicans. Domenici was much the same.

But Republicans remain officially upbeat about their chances, particularly where it comes to domestic issues. "We realize the challenges the map presents for us, but we are also confident that the Democrats are beginning to show their true colors by constantly finding new ways to tax and spend," said National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director Rebecca Fisher. "We are also optimistic that the voters' remorse for putting Democrats in power last cycle will carry us to the majority next November."

Republicans also face tough re-election races in New Hampshire, Maine, Minnesota and Oregon.

"Democrats seem to have roughly eight potential pickup opportunities compared to one solid pickup opportunity -- Sen. Mary Landrieu's seat in Louisiana -- for Republicans," said ABC News Political Director David Chalian. "Add an unpopular president, an unpopular war and depressed fundraising to the mix, and you've got Republicans facing very rough political headwinds."

It is a similar story in the House of Representatives. All 435 congress members face re-election, but five ranking Republicans, including former House speaker Dennis Hastert, have announced they will retire. Many House districts have been drawn by state legislators to favor one party or another, but the retirements there will drain resources for Republicans from seats that would not otherwise have been contentious.

"It makes me very happy to see my dear and good friends spending more time with their families," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, grinning at reporters during a press conference Thursday. "They've earned it."