Interesting list of potential Democratic retirements from the Hill, here:

  • Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), 74
  • Joe Manchin, 67
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), 74
  • Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), 78
  • Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), 74

Manchin’s on the list because he’s doing all the things that Senators who are planning to run for Governor do: to wit, talking about how much he hates Washington DC, and letting the state party apparatus dip their beaks into his fundraising war chest.  Boxer is… tired, I think.  Also, not raising money. Of the other three: Leahy is actually younger than I thought he was; he’s probably staying.  Reid has two years of pain ahead of him.  Mikulski… Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) would be 80 in 2016.  That’s old for a reelection campaign.

This is all relevant because – assuming a 54-46 GOP/Dem Senate – retirements are going to be exceedingly important in 2016. The current ratio of Republican seats being defended to Democratic ones – 24 to 10 – would be potentially bad enough; complicating it is that of the five other Democratic Senators running, only Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) of Colorado is considered to be seriously at risk.  Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) of Washington State is a possible sleeper, because hope springs eternal.

On the other hand, looking at the other side things aren’t quite as bad for the GOP as all those breathless articles were insisting before the election. Assuming nobody retires from the Senate to run for Governor or President (big assumption, and we’ll discuss that in a minute), and using Murray as a yardstick, the three most at-risk Republican Senators this cycle would be Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) of Illinois, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) of Wisconsin. Kirk keeps his job, if he wants it.  Toomey and Johnson both benefit from having little in the way of credible opposition*.  Easy to see all three keeping their seats, frankly. As for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)… she had unique circumstances in 2010, which are unlikely to be repeated.

So strategic Republican retirements are going to be key to any Democratic strategy.  If Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) of Arizona retire and Democrats flip those seats (with who?) and if Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) of Louisiana drops out to win the governorship and Democrats flip that seat (with who?) and if Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) of Kentucky and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) decide to give up their seats to run for President and the Democrats flip those seats (with WHO?)… look, there are a lot of ‘ifs’ there.  The Democratic party strategy for 2016 is starting to look like one of those elaborate chess or pool strategies where you set up everything so that each move plays into the next, which sets you up for an eventual commanding endgame where your forces are perfectly positioned for victory.  Pundits love this stuff, honestly.  Even mustang pundits like myself.

The problem?  This isn’t actually a chess or pool game.  A better metaphor would be one where the other guy has a club, with a nail in it.  And he also has a strategy, which is to go up and whale on things until they break – something that neither chess pieces nor pool balls can really block.  He also has what will be a 54/46 margin in the Senate, so he can afford the virtues of simplicity.  I know that I’m starting to mangle the metaphor here, so let me be more straightforward about it: the Democrats will not retake the Senate if they rely on an elaborate strategy of everything going right for them at once. For one thing: as the previous paragraph shows, they’re starting to hit the problem of drying up candidate pools, and ain’t that an absolute shame**.

None of this is a guarantee that we will keep the Senate in 2016.  But it is relevant subtext to any decision that the Democrats listed at the top of this post will have about running again for office.  Even the candidates who are reasonably certain that they can retire and have a Democrat replace them are still going to end up costing the Democratic party precious election funding (it costs more to fill an open seat than it does to cruise to reelection); and if Manchin and Reid quit – coupled with Bennet being in real trouble – then the odds of the GOP keeping the Senate, and possibly even increasing their margin, go way up.

And, of course, then there’s 2018.  Because, hey, why not think about all this stuff ridiculously far in advance?

(Image via Shutterstock)

Moe Lane (crosspost)

*It’s a measure of how bad things are for Wisconsin Democrats that Johnson’s presumed opponent is always Russ Feingold, who has frankly disappeared off of the face of the Earth since he lost in 2010.

**Actually: no.  No, it is not.  It’s what happens when you base your national strategy on the stubbornly parochial attitudes of SoCal, the NorthEast gentry elite, and the Beltway: everybody outside of those areas ends up not measuring up to your Procrustean program.