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Posted at 1:24 PM ET, 01/19/2011

A run of Senate retirements or business as usual?

By Chris Cillizza

North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. Photos by Melina Mara/Washington Post and Alex Brandon/AP

The retirements of Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) over the past 24 hours has set the political world spinning with questions about who will be the next to go.

(Check out the rankings of retirement possibilities by ABC's Jon Karl and the Fix's Line on future Senate retirements.)

But, how does this flurry of Senate retirements -- Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) called it quits last week -- compare to historic norms? Are we seeing more senators retire -- and at earlier dates -- than in years past as the threat of losing an intraparty fight -- ala Bob Bennett, Lisa Murkowski and Arlen Specter in 2010 -- now looks more real?

A look back at the 2010 election suggests that the focus on the recent spate of retirements could be overblown.

By this time in the 2010 cycle, four Senators had called it quits. Both Florida Sen. Mel Martinez (R) and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback (R) made their retirement announcements at the end of 2008 while Missouri Sen. Kit Bond (R) and Ohio Sen. George Voinovich (R) were both out of their respective reelection races by mid-January. By February, New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg (R) was also a retiree.

(It's worth remembering that the prevailing narrative at this time in the 2010 election -- based largely on those five early Republican retirements -- was that the GOP was in free fall in the Senate and elsewhere. The six-seat Republican gain last November proves the foolishness of making too many predictions about what retirements mean almost two years before an election.)

All told in 2010, there were a whopping 15 open seat races. Nine of those were straight retirements (Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, North Dakota, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio and Kansas) while three were incumbents who lost in intraparty contests (Alaska, Pennsylvania and Utah), two were caretaker appointments (Delaware and Florida) and one was an appointment following a death (West Va.).

Excluding the appointment due to death in West Virginia, the 14 open seats in 2010 matched the modern day political record set in 1996 when 13 Senators retired and one other -- appointed Kansas Sen. Sheila Frahm (R) -- lost a primary.

In the intervening six election cycles, however, the number of retirements -- forced or otherwise -- dipped considerably. In the 1998, 2000, 2006 and 2008 elections there were only five Senate retirements each. In 2002, there were seven retirements while in 2004 there were eight.

The early pace of 2010 retirements then, while not in excess of where things stood at this point in the last election cycle, is ahead of the numbers in most other elections of recent vintage.

Numbers along don't tell the whole retirement story, however. Where and when a Senate retirement takes place can often matter far more than the raw numbers on each side.

Again, take 2010. While Republicans had more retirements (eight) than Democrats (six plus West Virginia), it was the Democrats who suffered more damage in the "where and when" categories.

Two retirements in early 2010 -- by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) -- helped drive the "Democrats running for the electoral hills" storyline that dominated the rest of the year. And, both retirements came in GOP-leaning states; Democrats ultimately lost both races in landslides.

Rating the 2012 retirement on the "where and when" scale, Conrad's exit is not good for Democrats -- North Dakota is a red state -- but the timing of it could give his party a chance to recruit a top tier candidate. Lieberman's retirement strengthens the chances of Democrats winning in November 2012 since the general election vote looks likely to be split two ways rather than three. And, Hutchison's retirement likely won't make a major ripple as Democrats have shown little ability to be competitive in statewide contests in Texas in recent years.

Looking for a few potential retirements that could really matter when determining 2012 control? Keep an eye on Nebraska's Ben Nelson (D), Wisconsin's Herb Kohl (D), Virginia's Jim Webb (D), Arizona's Jon Kyl (R) and Nevada's John Ensign (R). (Like Lieberman in Connecticut, an Ensign retirement would likely improve his party's chances of holding the seat.)

No-go decisions by any or all of that group -- particularly if they come later in the election cycle -- could have a profound impact on the battle for the Senate majority in 2012.

By Chris Cillizza  | January 19, 2011; 1:24 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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