With Republican George Voinovich of Ohio retiring, the number of open, Republican-held Senate seats in 2010 has now climbed to four. Next year, all four of these seats, Florida (Martinez), Kansas (Brownback), Missouri (Bond) and Ohio (Voinivich), are winnable with a good candidate. Looking more short-term, the four Senators vacating these seats could prove to be a vital source of cross-over votes to support Democratic trifecta legislation. This is because retiring Republicans appear far more willing to support Democratic legislation that those who seek to stay in the Senate over the long-haul.
Consider, for example, the only major piece of legislation since the November elections with a mainly party-line vote in the Senate. On December 11th, the Senate voted on the auto bailout package. Here was the vote breakdown by party:
Democrats and Independents Yea: 42
Nay: 4 (Reid's "nay" was procedural, not in actual opposition)
Not Voting: 4
Republicans Yea: 10
Not Voting: 8
However, here was the breakdown among Republicans, when looking at Senators facing impending retirement (12) and those who either knew or believed they would continue to the 111th Congress (37 in all, including Norm Coleman):
Republicans Leaving Yea: 5
Not Voting: 5
Republicans Staying Yea: 5
Not Voting: 3
Of the roughly one-quarter of all Republicans who were leaving the Senate, nearly half voted in favor of the auto bailout (not voting was effectively the same as voting "nay," since this was a cloture vote that required sixty votes to pass). Even though there were three times as many Republicans staying on for the 111th Congress (the current Congress sworn in last week), that much larger group of Republicans still could only manage five total supporters. The rate of support for the auto bailout was thus three times higher among retiring Republican Senators than among Republicans who were determined to stick around.
This support also did not appear confined to either regional concerns or more traditionally "moderate" Republicans. For example, Sam Brownback, who generally falls within the right-wing of the Republican Party, but who is also leaving the Senate to run for Governor of Kansas, supported the bill. This was also the case for southeastern Senators John Warner (Virginia) and Elizabeth Dole (North Carolina), both of whom hail from states with few American auto manufacturer jobs. The connecting thread between these Senators appears to be that they were all ready to leave the Senate, not that they were affected by a sudden case of moderation or regional concerns.
With Democrats poised to reach 59 Senate seats later this year (including Sanders and Lieberman), the increasing number of retiring Republican Senators could prove extremely useful in breaking Republican attempts to filibuster and / or bottle up legislation in committee. When Republicans are determined to leave the Senate, their leadership seems to lose control over them. This makes sense, as who cares about future retribution if you are leaving the camp altogether? As such, McConnell might only have 37 Republican votes that he can control right now, and those numbers include Arlen Specter, who is running for re-election in the now very blue Pennsylvania, and the two women from Maine, Collins and Snowe. Collectively, these three make up the remnants of the Republican moderate lunch-time caucus. With all three still in the Senate, with four retiring Republican Senators, and with only 41 Republicans in the Senate to begin with, it is going to be virtually impossible for McConnell to hold together a filibuster on anything, with the possible exceptions of seating Al Franken and the Employee Free Choice Act.
As Republican retirements continue to mount, they increase not only our electoral chance in 2010, but our chances to pass legislation and attract cross-over votes during the 111th Congress. With that in mind, hopefully these retirements will continue to pile up.