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Posted at 1:15 PM ET, 02/14/2011

The political wisdom of early Senate retirements

By Chris Cillizza

Last week's twin retirements by Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) were major news, opening up seats in two competitive states heading into 2012.

They were the fourth and fifth retirements so far this election cycle following Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to the sidelines.

While the number of early retirements is, as we've noted, running higher than in most recent elections, a quick look back at history suggests that when it comes to retirements sooner is better.

Take the 2010 election cycle.

The early story was the rapid number of Republican retirements. Between December 2008 and February 2009, five GOP Senators -- Mel Martinez (Fla.), Sam Brownback (Kans.), Kit Bond (Mo.), George Voinovich (Ohio) and Judd Gregg (N.H.) -- all announced their plans to leave office. (A full list of 2010 retirements is at the end of this post.)

Coming so quickly after President Obama's sweeping victory -- and gains made up and down the ballot by Democrats -- the retirements played into a "Republicans in full retreat" storyline that had the majority party talking about -- and the Fix writing about -- the possibility of 60 seats in Democratic hands by November 2010.

Whoops!

Republicans wound up winning all five of those early open seats as well as the vacancy caused by Sen. Jim Bunning's retirement in July 2009.

The dominant storyline then turned dramatically, focusing not on the early Republican retirements but on the late Democratic ones.

Of the six Democrats who retired in the 2010 election, three did so in the actual election year: Sens. Byron Dorgan (N.D), Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.).

While the Dodd retirement was good news for Democrats as it allowed them to replace him on the ballot with the more popular Dick Blumenthal, the races in Indiana and North Dakota became major problems -- both literally and symbolically.

Democrats lost both races by wide margins. But the bigger problem was the broader message that the Bayh and Dorgan retirements sent to a party already growing nervous about the political environment.

Taken together, the two retirements created a sense of panic within the Democratic ranks as talk swung to whether Republicans could actually win back control of the Senate -- a prospect that had seemed beyond outlandish just a year earlier.

The 2010 election then should serve as a cautionary tale for prognosticators trying to read too much into what the spate of early retirements mean.

An early retirement announcement allows the party trying to keep hold of the seat to ensure a full recruitment effort as well as develop the best possible strategic plan. The later in the cycle the retirement comes, the more difficult it is to recruit a top-flight candidate and make the other preparations necessary to hold a seat.

Obviously, factors other than the timing of the announcement matter when it comes to evaluating how problematic a Senate retirement will be. The demographics of the state, the deepness or thinness of the respective political benches and the overall national political environment all can play a critical role as well.

But, timing matters hugely in politics -- and that's doubly true when it comes to retirement announcements.

This cycle strategists in both parties appear to have counseled Senators who know they won't be running for re-election to make it plain as early as possible; four of the ten people we named in our Friday retirement Line back in December have already announced their plans to leave the chamber.

Defending open seats is never an easy thing. But defending a late-breaking open seat can be close to mission impossible.

Senate retirements in 2010 (chronological by date)

2008
Paul Kirk (D-Mass.) -- Sept. 24, 2009
Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) -- November 24, 2008
Mel Martinez (R-Florida) -- Dec 2, 2008
Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) -- Dec 18, 2008

2009
Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) -- Jan 8, 2009
George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) -- Jan 12, 2009
Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) -- Feb 12, 2009
Roland W. Burris (D-Ill.) -- July 9, 2009
Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) -- July 28, 2009

2010
Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) -- Jan 5, 2010
Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) -- January 6, 2010
Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) -- Feb 15, 2010
Carte Goodwin (D-W.Va.) -- July 20, 2010

By Chris Cillizza  | February 14, 2011; 1:15 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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