Two stunning Senate retirements were preceded by a flurry of phone calls among the top Democrats in Washington.
The message to Dodd from his party establishment: Godspeed, good luck and thank you for your service.
The message to Dorgan: Please don’t go.
Dorgan’s decision shocked and upset Democratic leaders. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid lobbied him to stay and Vice President Joe Biden asked him to reconsider, according to sources familiar with the talks.
Dodd was greeted with warm wishes from politicians in both parties, and faced very little pressure from Democrats to stay, as his race was beginning to be seen as a lost cause.
The divergent reaction was all about the electoral map. With Dorgan out, the GOP now has a very strong chance at winning North Dakota. With Dodd out, Democrats are quietly relieved and now have a much better chance of keeping the Connecticut seat in the Democratic column with the popular state attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, poised to enter the race.
Still, Democrats in Washington were not preparing this week for two major retirement announcements that would shake up the outlook of the 2010 midterms.
The two senators also had different approaches to announcing their retirements. For weeks, Dodd had been talking with Reid for weeks about this possibility, sources familiar with the talks said. And days after the decision was ultimately made, Dodd began making telephone calls Tuesday afternoon to his inner circle, and the calls continued through Wednesday.
At the same time Dodd was calling his aides, friends and advisers, Dorgan notified his staff by memo that he would do the same. Some of Dorgan’s staff didn’t know this was coming until they got the Tuesday afternoon e-mail.
Neither of the two senators discussed their impending retirement announcements with one another – even as they were carrying on conversations with the same powerbrokers.
For Dodd, the speculation that he was on his way out had reached a fevered pitch – and the Blumenthal rumors had been circulating for more than a month.
“In politics there are always rumors and unconfirmed reports, and as you know, I have been a supporter of Sen. Dodd and have been in his corner and continued to be a supporter to the point of decision,” Blumenthal told POLITICO. He added that Dodd’s decision was “really confirmed to me” in the last “24-48 hours,” and he has since received words of encouragement from top Democrats in Washington and Connecticut to jump into the race, which he intends to do.
Dodd’s closest allies say they increasingly saw his retirement as imminent as he got more bogged down on major issues on the Hill.
“I kind of got the feeling that he might not run when he spent so much time working on the health care issues and the credit care issues down in Washington and did not come back to Connecticut to shore up his base,” said John Droney, a Connecticut-based attorney and close ally of Dodd’s who spoke with the senator Tuesday for a few minutes about his decision.
Dodd finalized his decision to retire on a Christmas Eve visit to the snowy grave of his long-time friend Ted Kennedy at Arlington Cemetery.
There, he reflected, on the tough year he had. Amid his fierce legislative battles in Washington, he witnessed the death of his sister Martha in July, battled prostate cancer in the summer and lost his close friend Kennedy in August – all while facing the toughest reelection bid of his five-term career.
“Now, let me be clear: I'm very aware of my present political standing here at home in Connecticut,” Dodd said Wednesday. “But it is equally clear that any certain prediction about an election victory or defeat nearly a year from now would be absurd.
“Strange as it may sound, I'm not confident that I would be standing here today making this announcement if these situations had not occurred. None of these events nor circumstances, either individually or collectively, is the cause of my decision not to seek reelection.
Democrats in Dodd’s inner circle insisted there was no pressure from Reid, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee or the White House to convince Dodd to bow out, citing the senator’s close personal relationship with the majority leader, President Barack Obama, whom Dodd endorsed early in the 2008 presidential campaign, and Biden, who said in a statement Wednesday that Dodd is “one of my best friends in life.”
Immediately following his speech Wednesday, Dodd was greeted with warm statements from the White House and top Democrats, who lauded his long career in Washington.
“This is a victory for the DSCC,” said one Senate insider. “Blumenthal can keep this seat in the Democratic column, where Dodd was probably going to lose.”
And while Dodd will enjoy a nice public farewell tour this year, Dorgan’s retirement announcement has played out completely differently.
Dorgan didn’t let Reid know about his retirement until Monday, and the Senate majority leader, himself locked in a tough reelection battle, urged Dorgan to reconsider. But Dorgan was firm on his decision, and spoke again with Reid Tuesday afternoon. Before the news was public, Dorgan spoke by phone with Biden, who also could not get him to change his mind, sources said. He did not speak with Obama before the news broke.
By then, Dorgan informed his staff by memo that he planned to retire, saying that – at age 67 – he wanted to pursue opportunities outside of Congress, including teaching and authoring two books.
“Although I still have a passion for public service and enjoy my work in the Senate, I have other interests and I have other things I would like to pursue outside of public life,” he said.
Dorgan had grown frustrated at the fiercely partisan ways of the Senate, but he kept his internal deliberations very closely guarded with his family and a handful of his closest advisers – and didn’t let Reid, DSCC Chairman Robert Menendez and the White House know until the decision was made early this week.
“Few people knew about it,” one Dorgan ally said. “It was tightly held.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.