WASHINGTON -- House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey's late decision not to seek re-election in November sent shock waves through the Democratic leadership here. If any Democrat was assured re-election, the venerable Wisconsin liberal would be at the top of the list. But in a year of the angry voter and a growing list of vulnerable incumbents, the once-untouchable Obey was in danger of being swept out of office by a Republican tidal wave.
Obey, still as feisty and combative as ever at 71, has won 25 straight elections to the House in his 7th Congressional District. But the district has split almost evenly in past presidential elections and the powerful committee baron who shaped the $800-billion stimulus bill faced a younger, more aggressive Republican challenger who has put the seat on the Democrats' endangered list.
Obey is not alone. Republicans have targeted two other veteran Democratic bulls for defeat: House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri and Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt of South Carolina. Republican insiders tell me that they are broadening their target list to include other Democrats who were once considered safe but whom polls now show to be in trouble.
Obey's decision could trigger other House Democratic departures in the weeks to come. He is the 17th Democrat who is leaving at the end of this year. Until relatively recently, election trackers were putting the GOP's House gains at around 30 seats, 10 shy of taking over the chamber. But now some think a gain of around 40 seats is no longer unthinkable.
Obey insisted he could win re-election, but some think that is just so much bravado. He "thinks the Democrats will lose the House and he doesn't want to go back into the minority. I wonder how many of his colleagues are having similar thoughts right now," wrote The Weekly Standard's John McCormack. Time magazine's Jay Newton-Small is calling this "a troubling sign for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for whom retention of the House grows more difficult with each retirement."