WASHINGTON — Two longtime Senate Democrats suddenly abandoned re-election bids, and so did a Democratic swing-state governor, underscoring the perilous political environment for President Barack Obama's party as anti-incumbent sentiment ripples across the nation. But stunning as they seemed, the retirements weren't as bad as they might have seemed for the Democrats.
Embattled Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd was all but forced to quit, and North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan also ditched his re-election effort in the face of a difficult race. Dodd's announcement Wednesday may actually save the Democrats' hold on his seat — the party quickly recruited a stronger candidate — but Dorgan's retirement may cost the party a seat in his Republican-leaning state. And that would mean the loss of a critical 60th vote in the Senate.
Among governors, Democrats were heartened by two developments that cleared the way for stronger candidates not tainted by incumbency: Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, among the most vulnerable for re-election, chose not to seek a second term, and Michigan Lt. Gov. John Cherry, the Democratic front-runner to replace term-limited Gov. Jennifer Granholm, opted against running. Republicans had been thrilled at the prospect of competitive races in those states.
Combined, the no-campaign decisions highlighted the challenges facing Obama's party. The Democrats are seeking to hang onto comfortable majorities in Congress and a slim edge among governors in a year when voters are angry at lawmakers of all political stripes and likely to punish the party in power.
The bottom line for Obama: Losing even one seat in the Senate would make it more difficult to block Republican filibusters. And if the GOP makes big gains in the House — a pickup of 30 or more seats is seeming ever more likely — that will make it much harder to pass administration proposals.
All told, the latest developments mean 2010 is sure to see a slew of competitive races, though it's unlikely — at this point — that Republicans will win enough seats to retake control of either the House or Senate. Democrats currently control the Senate 58-40, and the two independents also typically vote with the party. The House is 257-178 for the Democrats.
Congress is expected to pass Obama's health care overhaul soon, but it will take years for that policy to be implemented and Democratic lawmakers' support will be crucial. Climate change legislation also hangs in the balance. With no re-election hanging over their heads, retiring Democratic lawmakers have little incentive to fall in behind the White House on its priorities.
Wednesday's are only the latest House Democratic retirement announcements, accompanied by the recent defection of Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith to the GOP, in a dispiriting trend for a party that had been soaring after winning control of Congress and the White House in back-to-back elections. The losses could hamper candidate recruitment, activist enthusiasm, and grass-roots fundraising.
That said, the GOP has troubles of its own, with even more Republicans than Democrats leaving Congress and governors mansions instead of running again.
In the House, 14 Republicans and 10 Democrats are retiring or seeking other offices.
In the Senate, six Republicans, including several in swing states requiring expensive campaigns, and four Democrats, including Dodd and Dorgan, aren't running.
Among governors, four Republicans who can seek re-election are opting not to while the same can be said for three Democrats, including Ritter.
The party in the White House typically loses a number of House and Senate seats in the first midterm of a presidency.
Coming within hours of one another, the retirement announcements of Dodd and Dorgan were essentially a wash for Democrats.
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Dodd, a five-term senator and chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, was considered the most vulnerable Senate Democrat up for re-election. He consistently has trailed in early polls against Republican Rob Simmons, a former House member competing for the Republican nomination against World Wrestling Entertainment co-founder Linda McMahon.
Video: Dorgan won’t run in 2010 Prominent Democrats had been privately urging Dodd to step aside to make way for a stronger candidate. His retirement in Democratic-leaning Connecticut cleared the way for Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, one of the state's most popular politicians, to run, thereby bolstering the prospects the seat will remain in Democratic hands.
Saying the past year has been tough, Dodd announced his retirement Wednesday in Connecticut. "I lost a beloved sister in July and, in August, Ted Kennedy. I battled cancer over the summer, and in the midst of all of this, found myself in the toughest political shape of my career," he said.
If Dodd's decision saved a Democratic seat, Dorgan's retirement put one in serious jeopardy.
"I have other interests, and I have other things I would like to pursue outside of public life," said Dorgan, 67, a member of the Senate Democratic leadership.
His announcement stunned Democrats, who had been confident heading into the new year that Dorgan, a moderate Democrat in a GOP-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 said he was "very seriously" considering a candidacy.
Among potential Democrats to replace Dorgan: Rep. Earl Pomeroy and Heidi Heitkamp, a former state attorney general and tax commissioner.
More trouble for Democrats could be forthcoming.
Former Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee told MSNBC that he was seriously considering a primary challenge to New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to fill the remainder of Hillary Rodham Clinton's term and who has never run statewide. But Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., told ABC that he was leaning against challenging Gillibrand.
NBC News' Chuck Todd and The Associated Press contributed to this report.