Democratic Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota won't seek re-election this fall, party officials say, bringing to four the number of open Senate seats Democrats must defend to protect their majority.
Adding to the party's woes: officials said Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter planned to announce Wednesday that he won't run for a second term in November, according to two Democrats with knowledge of Ritter's decision.
The moves come at the start of an election year that's shaping up to be challenging one for lawmakers of all political stripes, and particularly for Democrats. Anti-incumbent sentiment is rippling through the electorate, a majority of the country says it' on the wrong track, and the party in power typically gets blamed for the nation's troubles.
Dodd, 66, a five-term senator whose popularity in Connecticut has tumbled since his failed 2008 presidential bid and who has faced criticism over allegations he got a favorable deal on a mortgage, was expected to disclose his decision Wednesday, according to two Democratic officials with knowledge of his plans. They spoke only on condition of anonymity ahead of Dodd's announcement.
Dorgan, a moderate who was first elected to the Senate in 1992 after serving a dozen years in the House, said Tuesday he reached the decision after discussing his future with family over the holidays. Dorgan, 67, said: "Although I still have a passion for public service and enjoy my work in the Senate, I have other interests and I have other things I would like to pursue outside of public life."
Democrats face a challenging environment as they seek to maintain their advantage in the Senate, where they hold an effective 60-40 majority, including two independents who align themselves with Democrats. That's just enough to break Republican filibusters if all 60 stick together.
The decisions by Dodd and Dorgan mean Democrats now will have to defend open seats in four states. The others are Delaware and Illinois, where Sens. Ted Kaufman, who has Vice President Joe Biden's old seat, and Roland Burris, who has President Barack Obama's old seat, aren't running for full terms.
Republicans, for their part, are defending six open seats, in Ohio, Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Kansas.
Dodd is chairman of Senate Banking Committee, which was at the center of efforts to deal with the economic meltdown. And he has played a prominent role in the debate over overhauling health care, taking over for his friend Sen. Ted Kennedy during his illness and then death. Given Dodd's bad poll standing, other Democrats have gone out of their way to give him the spotlight in hopes he could recover before November.
He ran for president in 2008, moving his family to Iowa for weeks before the caucuses and angering Connecticut constituents. He dropped out after a poor showing in Iowa. Since then, his popularity continued to drop in Connecticut as he faced inquires into a Countrywide mortgage loan.
With the embattled Dodd stepping aside, Democrats can now try to recruit a more popular candidate to run in Democratic-leaning state, bolstering the prospects of thwarting a Republican victory.
Dorgan's decision, on the other hand, cuts the other way and stunned members of his party.
Democrats were confident heading into the new year that Dorgan, a moderate Democrat in a Republican-leaning state, would run for re-election even as rumors intensified that Republican Gov. John Hoeven would challenge him in November. Early polling showed Dorgan trailing Hoeven in a hypothetical contest, and Democrats expected a competitive race if the matchup materialized.
Hoeven has not announced a candidacy but he told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he was "very seriously" considering a Senate race.
Democrats quickly started recruiting a candidate to run in Dorgan's place. Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy, who was first elected to the House in 1992, could be interested in seeking the Senate seat, along with Heidi Heitkamp, a former state attorney general and tax commissioner who was defeated by Hoeven in the 2000 gubernatorial race.
In a statement, Pomeroy praised Dorgan's long service to North Dakota and the nation.
Obama also praised Dorgan, citing his work on energy issues and for supporting farmers and the state's Indians, and for "standing with North Dakota's families through difficult economic times."
Dorgan is chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and leads his party's policy committee as a member of the Senate Democratic leadership team. He has been advocate for farmers and ranchers in his home state and secured funding for renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and biofuels.
His decision could have ramifications for one of Obama's top priorities, climate and energy legislation. With no re-election race and nothing to lose, Dorgan could be even more of a wild card on the issue than he already has been.
Representing a large oil and coal-producing state, Dorgan opposes the bill backed by the White House and Democratic leaders that would put a limit on heat-trapping pollution and would allow companies to swap valuable emissions permits. Dorgan instead has pushed an energy bill that would boost renewable energy production and oil drilling and wait to tackle global warming pollution.
In Colorado, potential Democratic candidates for governor include Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and Andrew Romanoff, a former state legislator who is challenging Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet for the party's nomination for the Senate.
Two Republicans are seeking the GOP nomination: former Rep. Scott McInnis and businessman Dan Maes.
Associated Press writers David Espo and Dina Cappiello in Washington, and Dale Wetzel in Bismarck, N.D., contributed to this report.