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Retirements Pose A Problem For Democrats

By Bill Schneider/CNN

WASHINGTON (Oct. 25) -- With President Bill Clinton running way ahead of Bob Dole, you'd think Democrats would be a sure bet to take back Congress. But most observers believe it's not going to be so easy.

This week's question is, which is the most important reason why Democrats may have trouble regaining control of Congress this year?

Is it...

A) retirements?

B) money?

C) turnout?

D) coattails?

E) issues?

And the answer is... A) retirements.

Open seats where no incumbent is running for re-election are always the most vulnerable to takeover by the other party. In the 1994 election, most Republican gains came in previously Democratic open seats.

An unusually high number of senators are retiring this year -- 14, more than any year in this century. Eight of them are Democrats and that tilts the advantage to the GOP.

In the contests to fill the six open Republican seats, five are tossups right now, including the special election for Dole's seat in Kansas.

But Republicans are threatening to take six of the eight open Democratic seats: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Illinois and New Jersey.

More Democrats than Republicans are leaving the House of Representatives as well.

Twenty-two open Democratic House seats are currently in danger, while only 12 open Republican seats appear threatened. That raises the hurdle for Democrats to take over the House.

It's a close race for control of Congress, and the retirement of so many Democrats raises the odds that the Republicans will keep their majorities.

Charles Bierbauer/Senior Washington Correspondent: So what could boost the Democrats' chances?

Schneider: Turnout and coattails. Republicans are worried that GOP voters, demoralized by Dole's weakness, may stay home, while Democrats, smelling victory, turn out in large numbers. Studies show that for every point the winner gets over 50 percent, his party picks up about three House seats.

So if Clinton wins with a 56 percent landslide, the Democrats are likely to gain enough seats to win control of Congress. The question is, will 1996 see a powerful tide bringing Democrats to victory up and down the ticket?

Or will it be a status quo election where a satisfied electorate votes to re-elect incumbents, including a Democratic president and a Republican Congress? There's evidence pointing toward both outcomes, so it's hard to predict.

This commentary originally appeared on CNN's "Inside Politics Extra."

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