Other than the H1N1 virus, the most contagious disease in our nation's capital is retirement. It is catching. The more Democrats that quit, the more others are also encouraged to hang it up. Retirements like those of Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., turn off donors to Democratic incumbents, encourage viable Republican challengers to get in races around the nation and lead other incumbent Dems to think about spending more time as lobbyists making money in Washington.
And the retirement bug is in full reign in Washington. In the week before Christmas, three Democrats from red districts retired (two from Tennessee and one from Kansas) and a fourth, Parker Griffith of Alabama, became a Republican. Now, with Dodd's and Dorgan's retirements, we can expect the blue legislators from red states to start falling ever more quickly.
But these retirements also send a signal to voters that is anything but helpful to President Obama: They signal that Democrats expect to lose. Nobody buys that these folks are leaving to spend more time with their families. Voters all realize that Democratic senators and congressmen are reading the handwriting on the walls, which sends the same message as the polls -- that voters are fed up with the Obama administration and with the Democratic Party.
To see Democrats stand up and, in effect, admit defeat is a bit like watching repentant sinners confessing at a revival meeting. One outburst triggers another. And the specter of Democratic leaders running from having to face their constituents again convinces swing voters that maybe there is something rotten in the party and in its congressional delegation.
Dorgan and Dodd both retired because they felt they would lose. But each had new scandals to fear had he actually run.
Dorgan never had to account to the voters of North Dakota for his role in accepting almost $100,000 in campaign contributions from Jack Abramoff's firm or the Indian tribes it represented. In return for these funds, Dorgan interceded on behalf of one tribe in Massachusetts and another in Mississippi, both far from his home state. Because his involvement came out after the 2004 elections had been held and he was safely returned to Congress, he never had to face the voters.
Indeed, he was the ranking Democrat on the Indian Affairs Subcommittee and led the investigation of the Abramoff bribes, never mentioning that he was one of their recipients. It would have been fun to watch him try to escape the criticism.
Dodd, at last being held to account for his role in fronting for AIG for his entire career, also faced issues related to his wife's employment by a subsidiary of AIG at the same time that Dodd was running errands for it in Congress. Dodd, of course, was the largest single recipient of AIG funds in Congress, getting more than twice as much as the next largest recipient.
The scandals that attach to Dodd and Dorgan would have injured the party and cost them angst not only in Connecticut and North Dakota but throughout the nation.
Obviously, the North Dakota seat will go Republican, probably to the North Dakota governor, John Hoeven.
But the Connecticut seat is hardly the automatic Democratic seat most pundits predict. While State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is quite popular and enjoys broad support, Connecticut voters are fed up with the Democratic agenda and opposed to the health care bill. The more all Democratic senators march in lockstep to pass legislation the people of America oppose, the more voters are willing to look past the candidates and vote based on party labels.
Rob Simmons, a former Connecticut congressman, would be a strong challenger to Blumenthal and, with the tide as pronounced as it is becoming for the GOP, who is to say that he can't pull it off?
Ditto, by the way, for anyone who challenges Kristen Gillibrand. Her record of flacking for the tobacco companies and her flip-flops on most major issues since her appointment make her very vulnerable to any GOP challenger who steps up to the plate.
When a tsunami is coming, it's very hard to predict how high the tide will go. Will it just lap over the swing states like Arkansas and Nevada? Will it go up to the lean-Democrat states and cost them seats in Delaware and Colorado? Or will it surge so far that it takes away Democratic Senate seats in solid Democratic states without elected incumbents like New York with Gillibrand, Illinois and Connecticut? Or will it so swamp the nation that even where Democratic incumbents are running in blue states, they are not safe in states like California, Washington, Indiana, Oregon and Pennsylvania?
Our bet is that the rising tide will swamp all their boats.