Lieberman Retires; GOP Eyes Benefit From Rapidly Changing Senate

Senate retirements could help GOP in 2012; 23 Democratic seats up for grabs.

January 18, 2011, 4:56 PM

Jan. 19, 2011 -- The 112th Congress isn't even three weeks old yet, but already the focus is turning to the 2012 elections as a slew of key senators announce their plans.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who caucuses with the Democrats, announced this afternoon that he will retire instead of seeking re-election in 2012.

"At the end of this term, I will have served 24 years in the U.S. Senate and 40 years in elective office. For me, it is time for another season and another purpose under Heaven," he said, quoting Ecclesiastes during a press conference in Stamford, Conn.

Read more about which Senators are reitiring and which might retire HERE.

Lieberman's relationship with his party has been strained since he lost the Democratic primary for Senate in 2006, at the height of the Iraq war. Lieberman was a strong supporter of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq, while most Democrats were not. He ultimately won re-election as an Independent after no strong Republican candidate entered the race. Lieberman endorsed Republican Sen. John McCain for president in 2008.

But his vote on social issues remained important to Senate Democrats. He helped them pass the health reform law and Wall Street reform during the first two years of the Obama administration.

In announcing his retirement today, Lieberman suggested that while his politics had not changed, the political landscape had.

"The politics of President Kennedy — service to country, support of civil rights and social justice, pro-growth economic and tax policies, and a strong national defense — are still my politics, and they don't fit neatly into today's partisan political boxes any more either," he said.

Had he stood for re-election, Lieberman would have run again as an Independent. While his retirement could make it easier for Democrats to hold the seat, retirements will likely have the opposite effect in other states.

On Tuesday Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said he will retire, the first Senate Democrat to decide not to run for re-election, but surely not the last. Meanwhile, on the Republican side Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said last week that she will leave, but Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., has said he will seek re-election.

Got that? It all makes for a rapidly changing picture in 2012 with control of the Senate up for grabs.

In the aftermath of Conrad's announcement, Republicans sounded even more confident that they can wrestle the Senate from Democratic hands 22 months from now. Just last fall Republican John Hoeven easily won North Dakota's other Senate seat which had been held by Democrat Byron Dorgan, who also chose to retire.

"With yet a second member of the Senate Democrat caucus preparing for retirement within a 24 hour period, all of us are left to wonder how many more Democrats may follow in their footsteps," said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh.," said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh.

In all, a whopping 23 Senate seats currently held by Democrats will be decided by voters in two years. By contrast, only 10 Republican seats are in play. After the midterm "shellacking" that saw the GOP win control of the House of Representatives, Senate Democrats appear to have cause for concern.

The Democrats' majority in the upper chamber of Congress has already shrunk from 59 seats to 53, including two independents: Lieberman and Vermont's Bernie Sanders. That means the GOP only needs to win four seats to wrest control of the Senate.

In addition to Conrad, a number of other Democrats could elect to retire from the Senate rather than engage in tough re-election fights . Even if they win, they face the distinct prospect that they will end up serving in the minority.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., faces a challenging re-election battle, while in the Midwest a tricky road lies ahead for Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who voted in favor of the controversial new health care law.

A slew of other Democratic-held seats, from Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri to Sen. Jon Tester in Montana, are currently viewed as toss-ups by political pundits. Other Democrats such as Sen. Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia are also seen as vulnerable.

While Democrats clearly have much more to lose than Republicans in the upcoming election, some GOP seats are also expected to result in close races. In Nevada, Sen. John Ensign must overcome the poitical fallout from his affair with a former, while in Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown will seek a second term, a push that seems more likely to end in success now that possible candidates such Sen. Ted Kennedy's widow Vicki have taken themselves out of the running.

All in all, analysts say, the 2012 landscape looks more promising for Republicans than Democrats.

"We've got a long way to go, but the numbers -- with or without retirements -- don't favor Democrats when they have to defend 23 seats," says Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the Cook Political Report.

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