02.11.11

Jon Kyl Retires: Who's the Next Senate Dropout?

As the retirements of Jon Kyl and Jim Webb make plain, the era of Senator-for-Life Strom Thurmond is over. David A. Graham reports on what’s pushing senators out early—and more possible retirees, from John Ensign to Ben Nelson.

When Arizona Republican Jon Kyl announced that he wouldn't run for a fourth term in the Senate, it wasn't exactly a surprise—he'd been rumored to be considering the move for months. But in the past, the very idea that a senator in his position wouldn't run would have been shocking. Kyl's the second-ranking Republican in a body the GOP has a good chance to recapture in 2012, and with a reputation as an influential and skillful politico with sharp elbows, his prospects for moving up were good.

Kyl follows Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Jim Webb (D-VA), and Kent Conrad (D-ND) in deciding not to run in 2012. Lieberman faced nearly certain defeat if he chose to run again, but the other three faced difficult but by no means insurmountable odds. And Kyl was a lock if he chose to run. Their retirements come early in the game, too, just weeks after the 112th Congress was sworn in.

Congressional experts say we're witnessing a transition from the age of Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond, when venerable senators served until they died—or at least reached death's doorstep. But congressional experts say the retirements are a sign of a changing political environment. For one thing, it's the tangible result of an increasingly polarized Congress, which senators just don't enjoy as much. The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in January also has caused members of Congress to reconsider the risks and rewards of serving. And of course there's some cold, hard politics, too.

"There are always personal reasons, but I think they sense that 2012 is going to be a tumultuous year, and they're trying to give their parties a chance to position themselves to run," says Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia, who notes that early retirees may want to avoid the stigma attached to Evan Bayh, the Indiana Democrat whose late exit in 2010 left the party without a strong candidate and without time to fundraise behind the doomed contender they did choose, Rep. Brad Ellsworth.

But the number of departures isn't far ahead of schedule—at least not the pace set last time around, says Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report who covers Senate races. The leaders of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have realized the importance of moving quickly and have begun pushing senators to choose early. For the 2010 campaign, Florida's Mel Martinez announced on December 2, 2008, that he wouldn't run for reelection. (Martinez later decided to leave the seat before the end of the term.) And he was followed in short order by Kit Bond, George Voinovich, and Judd Gregg.

Timing aside, however, the five early announcers may only be the beginning. The departures probably won't match the record of 13 set in 1996, but here are the five senators most likely to bow out before the 2012 contest.

Early retirees may want to avoid the stigma attached to Evan Bayh, the Indiana Democrat whose late exit in 2010 left the party without a strong candidate.

1. John Ensign

It's somewhat shocking that the embattled Nevada Republican hasn't backed out yet. Ensign already admitted to adultery and was then investigated by the Justice Department for allegedly getting the man he cuckolded a lobbying job in violation of rules. That inquiry was dropped, but he's now under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee. He's even less popular in Nevada than Harry Reid, who was only able to pull off a victory in 2010 because of a disastrous opponent, and polls show Ensign trailing in a primary or against likely Democratic candidates. He insists he's running, but GOP leaders' public support for him is tepid at best. Once Nevada has redistricted to add a new House seat, candidates will start falling in line, and that's when Ensign may see the writing on the wall and allow a more viable Republican to run, Duffy says. If not, he probably won't make it past a primary.

2. Ben Nelson

The moderate Nebraska Democrat might not be plagued by scandals, but he's in terrible shape. The Cornhusker State is no country for old Democrats these days, not even a centrist like Nelson, and he trails Republican Attorney General Jon Bruning by double digits in a recent poll. He's been saying since July 2010 that he's in, and he's not likely to face much pressure from Democratic leaders, since no other candidate from the party is likely to fare better. As a result, it really comes down to how Nelson wants to end his career, Sabato says: "Does he want go out a loser or a winner?"

3. Daniel Akaka

His state is reliably blue, but the 86-year-old Hawaiian might just be out of gas. Cash on hand is often a reliable indicator of who's running seriously, and the pitiful $66,000 he's collected so far pales in comparison the millions some of his colleagues have already raised for their campaigns. His choice may hinge on whether former Gov. Linda Lingle, considered the only viable Republican candidate, decides to run, a decision that could be months away.

4. Herb Kohl

With four terms and 76 years under his belt, Wisconsin's Herb Kohl is no spring chicken, either. But his tea leaves are harder to read. If Kohl bows out, it'll be because he feels like it, not because he's in danger. Like Akaka, his fundraising has been weak, but the millionaire just loaned himself $1 million. "He has a fundraiser in his living room with one person: him," Duffy jokes. But she notes that it's only a loan, so Kohl could recover it, and he's been coy about his intentions. He might be encouraged by the fact that Russ Feingold, the Democrat who just lost a tough race for reelection to the Senate, would be a strong successor.

5. Olympia Snowe

After years of infuriating her party's right wing, will 2012 finally be the year Olympia Snowe satisfies the hardliners and leaves? A second Tea Party-linked candidate announced on Friday that he'd challenge the Maine Republican. This should be a recurring theme for the next few months: Conservative activists will push her to step down, and failing that will try to beat her in a primary. Still, Duffy says Snowe could easily stay in the race—and win, aided by Tea Party-backed Gov. Paul LePage, who was close to Snowe's deceased husband and has endorsed her.

A Wild Card

Of course, the departures that hit hardest are those, like Bayh, that are least expected. Duffy is eyeing Democrats Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Bill Nelson of Florida as incumbents who might decide not to deal with the exhaustion of a race if their likely candidate looks formidable enough. It's the Bingamans of the Senate, not the Akakas, that will keep DSCC Chairwoman Patty Murray awake at night between now and the 2012 primaries.

David Graham is a reporter for Newsweek covering politics, national affairs, and business. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The National in Abu Dhabi.