All of this seems extremely premature to me. With 14 months to go until the voting we (if we are honest) have to acknowledge that we have no idea what the political and party dynamics will be that far down the road. While the health care debate has been (predictably) ugly, confusing, and divisive, it's also pretty much assured that something will pass. When it does, things will calm down. Perhaps this isn't the best time to be making predictions. Its also useful to put the upcoming election into some broader context.
Toward the end of the Politico story, the issue of retirements comes up. This, I'd argue, is a good place to start. Open seat races caused by an incumbents' retirements have always provided parties with their best opportunity to gain seats. The formidable incumbency advantages of name recognition, legislative record, constituency service, and fundraising might disappear, creating a much more level playing field. Should the out-party manage to field and support a credible candidate they can feasibly gain the seat. A crucial variable in their ability to do this, of course, is the underlying nature of the district itself. A Democrat retiring from a solidly liberal district isn't going to be likely to change, whatever the Republican candidate does. To look at the role that retirements play in assisting party gains, I created the following chart, focusing on the House of Representatives. Senate races have a much more individualistic dynamic that we'll explore over the coming months.
The above chart shows each party's success in gaining seats for each congressional election cycle since 1960. Column 2 indicates the total number of House retirements for that particular cycle. Column 3 provides the total number of Democratic retirements, followed by the number of those retirements lost. Column 5 provides the percentage of retirements lost. Column 6 notes the total number of Democratic losses (open seat losses plus incumbents defeated). Column 7 (based on the Republican numbers) shows how many of the Democrats' total gains for that year were the result of their capture of open seats. The remaining columns provide the same data for Republicans over this period.
So what do we see? First, both parties are quite successful in defending the seats of their retirees. Both parties lost, on average over the length of this data set, 29.5% of their open seats. Thus, if a party wants to rely on retirements to make big gains, they are going to need an extremely large number of retirements from the other side. The best example of this is 1994. I've highlighted 1994 in the chart (as with 2006) to show what happens during cycles when the party majority switches. In '94, Republicans managed to win 21 of the 28 vacancies created by Democratic retirements. These wins gave them 38% of the seats they captured that year. While they managed to unseat a very large number of incumbent Dems, these open seat wins were crucial.
A second trend that jumps out is that the Democrats have been more reliant on open seat wins to make their gains than Republicans have been. The Dems have averaged 46.5% of their gains through open seat wins as opposed to the Republicans 39%. Thus, for the Republicans in 2010, the data would seem to point to their need to knock of Democratic incumbents--at least given past trends. For them to do this, though, they'll need to target vulnerable Dems--probably those from moderate to Republican leaning districts. Hence, we've seen how the Blue Dogs have been at the center of the current hand wringing. One thing I've wondered about, as a result of how well the Democrats have done in the past two cycles, is whether the party is at its high water mark in terms of seats. In other words how many more districts, even under the most favorable circumstances, could possibly go Democratic? It's hard to think of many. Thus, any gains that the Republicans might make next year might be the result not of voter backlash against health care or Obama, but rather a natural correction in the electorate, a return to equilibrium if you will. Rather than doing so poorly now, it may be that the Democrats did too well in '06 and '08.
Looking ahead to 2010 with attention on retirements, what do we know at this point? Currently, 16 House members have announced their retirements (10 Republican and 6 Democrat). Looking at the range of this data set, one sees that even allowing for more retirement announcements in the future, 2010 doesn't seem like it will be a year with a large number of retirements--hence opportunities--for Republicans. With a new majority and now a President of their party in the White House, Democrats have an incentive to stay in office and push their policy agenda. One can also be sure that party leaders are pushing their members to stay put rather than retire or seek higher office. Thus, should some of these early prognostications materialize, they would seem to have to be driven by incumbent defeats. Not only are these difficult to produce individually, but to do so in large number and across numerous regions requires extremely unusual circumstances. While the current health care debate has certainly gotten some House Democrats scared, we shouldn't automatically assume that 2010 is going to be the equivalent of 1994 or 1966--years that saw the minority party make huge gains. A lot more would need to happen.