Another: Herb Kohl to Retire

Posted: May 13, 2011 12:24 PM
By my count, this news brings the total of sitting Senators who won't seek re-election next year to nine:  Akaka, Bingaman, Conrad, Ensign, Hutchison, Kyl, Lieberman, Webb and now Herb Kohl:

Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl will announce on Friday that he will retire at the end of his current term, adding to Democratic woes in the effort to maintain control of the Senate.

The decision by Kohl, 76, had been rumored for months. He had not raised much for a 2012 campaign, though he could have tapped from his personal wealth that comes from the family's eponymous department store chain.

Wisconsin is one of a host of blue-leaning states that turned sharply toward the Republicans in the 2010 election. Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold lost his re-election bid that year to Republican Ron Johnson, as Scott Walker won the governorship.

This is not a fun Friday for the DSCC, whose chairman recently predicted that there would be no additional Democratic Senate retirements ahead of the next election.  Oops.  As I've discussed before, the 2012 cycle presents Republicans with a golden opportunity to recapture the upper chamber of Congress: Of the 33 seats up next year, 23 are controlled by Democrats.  Six of those Democrats are now retiring, and open seats often lead to very competitive races.  Wisconsin trended red in 2010, so retaining Kohl's seat is by no means a slam dunk for Democrats, although we're already seeing the early DNC spin on this:

A Democratic source says the party is confident it can hold the seat, however, in part because of the controversy Walker sparked in his bid to reshape the state's collective bargaining laws.

"There is no place in the country where Republicans have overplayed their hand like they have in Wisconsin," said the source, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss strategy.

Ah yes, the great liberal backlash is coming -- although early manifestations of it haven't quite materialized, have they?  And the hand that Governor Walker supposedly "overplayed" is now being borrowed by liberal Democrats in places like Massachusetts.  Whom might the two parties recruit to run for Kohl's open seat?  On the Democrat side, recently-ousted Sen. Russ Feingold may take a run at it, as might Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in last year's governor race.  Several Democratic Congressman are also reportedly mulling a run (Tammy Baldwin has already expressed interest).

On the Republican side of the aisle, many conservatives may hope that either Governor Walker or Rep. Paul Ryan will claim the GOP mantle.  My guess is that neither man will bite.  Walker's budget fix was controversial, and its early effects have been positive.  But I expect he'd rather allow more time for his plan to pay additional dividends before facing voters again.  Paul Ryan, meanwhile, is an extremely influential member of Congress, and his role as House Budget Committee Chairman has allowed him to actively and prominently engage in a battle about which he's extraordinarily passionate.  Would he be willing to cede that platform for the chance to be a freshman Senator?  I'm not so sure.  Ryan's office will address this question later today.  I predict he'll decline to run. 

Regardless of how the primaries shake out, national Democrats will now be forced to spend substantial dollars to defend one of their own seats in a politically volatile state.  The GOP's high hopes to winning the Senate are buoyed further by today's announcement.

UPDATE - The NRSC reacts to the news:

“Senator Kohl’s retirement, just like his Democrat colleagues who stepped aside before him, immediately presents another key opportunity for Senate Republicans next year.  It also further dilutes the ability of national Democrats to go on offense, while they fight to maintain their dwindling Senate majority. 

“As Russ Feingold discovered last year, whomever the Democrats eventually nominate, he or she will have a very tough time selling Wisconsinites on the Washington Democrats’ agenda of reckless deficit spending, massive debt, and job-killing tax hikes.  Wisconsin continues to be a prime pickup opportunity for Senate Republicans in 2012.”

UPDATE II - Paul Ryan will take "a few days" to consider his options:

In the wake of the surprise announcement that Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., will not run for reelection in 2012, Wisconsin lawmaker Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget committee, says he will take some time to decide whether to run for the open seat. 

“I was surprised by Senator Kohl’s announcement and want to take some time over the next few days to discuss this news with my family and supporters before making any decision about how I’m best able to serve my employers in the First Congressional District, our state and nation,” Ryan, R-Wis., said in a statement Friday afternoon.

UPDATE III - It looks like Kohl's decision came as an unpleasant surprise for the DSCC:

Count Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil among those who were surprised by Sen. Herb Kohl's (D-Wis.) decision to retire rather than run for re-election in 2012.

"We thought he was going to run," Cecil said in an interview with National Journal on Friday. Cecil said he knew about Kohl's decision before Friday, but he would not go into specifics about when he learned the news.