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Don't Look For Many Senate Retirements In '98

By Charlie Cook

At this point in the 1998 election cycle, most of the attention is on retirements -- how many incumbent members of the House and Senate will choose to step down. Retirements are important because they create opportunities for the other party to pick up a seat. It's still much harder to beat an incumbent in most circumstances than to pick up an open seat, regardless of whether a member is choosing to step aside after a long career or to seek another office.

On the heels of last year's record 13 Senate retirements (excluding Bob Dole's resignation), almost any number would pale in comparison, but 1998 looks likely to yield an unusually low number of open Senate seats. At this point, only three senators have announced that they will not seek re-election in 1998: Democrats Wendell Ford of Kentucky and John Glenn of Ohio, and Republican Dan Coats of Indiana. If no other senators decide to retire, 1998 would tie with 1966, 1982 and 1990 as having the fewest number of open seats since 1964. The average during that period is just over six seats.

While a surprise retirement announcement is always possible and occasionally does happen, most eyes at this point are on Dale Bumpers, the 71-year-old Democrat from Arkansas who is in his fourth term. Bumpers was first elected in 1974, unseating the venerable Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright. Bumpers had been signaling that he intended to retire, but in recent weeks Bumpers has been indicating that he may run again, telling one confidant that if he made the decision today, he would run.

While Bumpers has compiled a voting record that is liberal by most measurements (Americans for Democratic Action liberal ratings of 80 percent, and single-digit American Conservative Union conservative ratings), it certainly is liberal by Southern standards. Despite this voting record, Bumpers has routinely won by wide margins and would be widely favored if he runs for re-election, provided that GOP Gov. Mike Huckabee does not challenge him. Huckabee has long wanted to run for the Senate, and actually was running for David Pryor's open seat in 1996 until the state's Democratic governor was convicted on Whitewater related charges. As lieutenant governor, Huckabee was next in line and abandoned his Senate bid to become governor. Sources close to Huckabee report that he is unlikely to run for the Senate next year, even if Bumpers retires, sending Republicans to the second or third string for a candidate.

In an open-seat situation, Republicans could turn to Rep. Jay Dickey of southern Arkansas, but the three-term member of the Appropriations Committee passed on a chance to run last year and may very well decide that he's better off staying in the House. Another name mentioned as a possible open-seat candidate is Lt. Gov. Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, son of the late former GOP Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller. Former U.S. Attorney Chuck Banks and businessman R. Mattison Murphy are also mentioned by some as possible GOP candidates, although the only Republican visibly testing the waters is Fay Boozman, a 50-year old state Senator, physician and Vietnam veteran from Benton who could run either way.

Aside from Bumpers, some have suggested that South Carolina's Fritz Hollings might retire, a move that would hurt Democrats badly. The state has been trending strongly in Republicans' favor in recent years and Hollings is probably the only Democrat who has a shot at keeping the seat for them. Hollings appears to be running hard, surprising even many of his friends who thought he would step down.

Last month, GOP Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa cleared the air and said he would run for re-election. Grassley had entertained the notion of running for an open governor's seat instead.

Grassley's Democratic colleague, Tom Harkin, is not up for re-election and thus would not have to give up his Senate seat unless he won. Harkin also looked at running for governor, but said just last week that he would stay in the Senate.

Yet another senator mentioned as a possible candidate for governor is Alaska Republican Frank Murkowski, but he has said nothing about it lately and is not expected to run.

Whether the number of retirements winds up being three or four, this low number of open seats means that the level of volatility in the overall Senate race picture will be quite low. Going into the 1996 elections, the senate incumbent re-election rate over the two previous decades was 79 percent. In 1996, only one incumbent, South Dakota Republican Larry Pressler, lost his re-election bid. Typically, only two to four incumbent senators lose re-election in any given election, and most of the turnovers occurs in the open seats. In short, while there appears to be plenty of action next year in races for the House and for governor, don't expect to see a huge number of competitive Senate races. There will certainly be interesting races, but there will be few of them.

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Rep. Jon Fox Faces A One-Two Punch (7/30/97)
Sen. Hollings Prepares For A Fifth Term (7/22/97)
The House: Looking Ahead To 1998 (7/15/97)
Sen. Bond Has Re-election Edge (7/7/97)
Bumpers' Decision Encourages GOP (7/3/97)
Kentucky Senatorial Race A Toss-Up (6/24/97)
Nevada's Senator Reid Looks Like An Early Favorite (6/17/97)
1998 Gubernatorial Ratings (6/17/97)
Indiana's Evan Bayh Could Reclaim His Father's Old Senate Seat (6/3/97)
Who Will Control The House After '98? (5/30/97)
New Mexico's 3rd District: Color It Republican Green (5/20/97)
Don't Look For Many Senate Retirements In '98 (5/13/97)
Louisiana Senate, 1996: It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over (5/5/97)
Rothenberg's Senate Re-election Ratings (4/25/97)
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