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More than just a retirement

by Paul M. Weyrich
web posted September 10, 2001

I recall calling then-Senator Bob Kasten (R-WI) right after the 1986 election to congratulate him on his having won another term. Kasten said, "Well, to be honest, I'm not happy about winning now that we have lost control [of the Senate.] Who wants to serve in the minority with Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Wyche Fowler (D-GA) and their ilk running things."

I think similar thoughts were going through the mind of Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX) as he unexpectedly announced he would not seek a fourth term next year.

The Democrats now control the Senate by a single vote. In the next election not only do the Republicans, representing the party that controls the White House, have to defend 20 seats to 14 for the Democrats, but incumbents are bailing out. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) will make it through his term by the grace of God. Should he pass away or be forced to retire before the end of his term, Democrats would have another incumbent under their belt because the Governor of South Carolina is a Democrat and would be able to appoint Thurmond's replacement.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) is retiring and Republicans will find it very difficult to hold that seat. North Carolina has been trending toward the Democrats in recent elections. For all the talk about Elizabeth Dole blowing away the opposition, moderate Republicans have not fared well running for the Senate from North Carolina. Hardline conservatives have been the only Republicans elected to represent North Carolina in the Senate in the past thirty years.

Sources active in Wyoming tell us that Sen. Craig Thomas (R) will leave the Senate to run for governor. Thomas would be a shoo-in if he sought reelection, but his likely departure would mean an open seat and, although Wyoming is a Republican leaning state, in an open seat situation anything can happen. Then there is Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN) who has not raised money for his reelection campaign. There is increasing speculation that he will throw in the towel. Al Gore wants to avenge his loss to George Bush in his home state and therefore Democrats will go all out to win that state. Tennessee is a Democrat leaning state anyway.

Gramm announcing his retirement on September 4 with wife Wendy at his side
Gramm announcing his retirement on September 4 with wife Wendy at his side

I think when Phil Gramm, who does not suffer fools gladly, looked at that situation he figured that the Republicans were going to be in the minority, probably fewer in number by three or four seats. Having been chairman of the powerful Banking Committee, I doubt he cared much for being the ranking member, a position where you can't do much but protest. Gramm is a man of action who likes to accomplish things. However, I think he saw himself accomplishing very little over the next seven years. So he put a nice face on the situation by saying that he had done everything he set out to accomplish and now it was time to go home.

Far more than Helms and Thurmond, situations where age had caught up with them, the retirement of Phil Gramm is an ominous sign for Republicans. When your best and brightest think there is no future in hanging around, that party could be looking at disaster.

True, the Democrats have a few vulnerable incumbents. But with all the impending retirements the Republicans are going to have to spend big bucks to defend their position in open seat races. Incumbents do not cost the party that much because they can raise lots of dollars on their own. Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) puts a happy face on the situation. To hear him tell it, the Republicans are going to come roaring back and will control the Senate once more.

Anything is possible. But he has history going against him. The party which occupies the White House almost always loses seats in the first mid-term election. Richard Nixon did see his party gain two Senate seats in 1970 (while losing 12 House seats) and Ronald Reagan witnessed a one seat gain in the Senate in 1982 (while his party was losing 26 seats in the House). Still, the odds are stacked against the amiable Frist and company. At the end of the day, all pious rhetoric aside, I believe that reality caused Phil Gramm to quit while he was ahead. ESR

Paul M. Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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