Tuesday’s announcement that Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., will not seek reelection—with Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., following suit today—accelerates an already rapid rate of turnover in the Senate that is altering the body’s composition and its leadership.
The last two elections cycles produced about one-third of the current members of the Senate: There have been 32 new senators sworn in since 2008, which represents the fastest turnover rate since the 1978 and 1980 elections, which together added 38 new members.
With the exits of Conrad and Lieberman in 2013, the Democratic leadership of the Agriculture; Appropriations; Budget; Banking; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Small Business; and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees will have changed hands.
Senators and observers who bemoan a loss of comity and bipartisanship in the body will see Conrad’s exit as exacerbating that trend. Moderate Senate Republicans in particular have continued to dwindle both in number and influence. And the big and relatively liberal Democratic classes of 2006 and 2008 have increasingly asserted influence in recent months. Members of those classes successfully pressed party leaders to adopt a more aggressive communications approach and are pressing to alter Senate filibuster rules.
The moves by Conrad and Lieberman, who were likely to face stiffs challenges in 2012, follows an announcement last week by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, that she would not run again. And these early announcements only raise the question of which other incumbents will bow out ahead of 2012.
Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., have left their 2012 reelection plans unclear. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., faces speculation because of presumed difficult elections.
Age and longevity is also a factor. Some veteran members such as California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 77, and Hawaii Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka, 86, as well as Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, 78, have been in the Senate long enough that retirement becomes a logical part of the calculation, whatever they decide.