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Life On Capitol Hill Spurring Exodus In The Senate

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is becoming an increasingly common refrain in the U.S. Senate:

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): And so I will not be a candidate for re-election to a fifth term in the United States Senate in 2012.

Senator JON KYLE (Republican, Arizona): I will not seek re-election to the United States Senate, but will retire from public service in January of 2013.

Senator John Ensign (Republican, Arizona): I will not be seeking re-election in 2012.

HANSEN: Senators Joe Lieberman, Jon Kyle and John Ensign are among the eight U.S. senators who have announced that they will not seek re-election in 2012. That's particularly early in an election cycle for sitting senators to announce their departure. After all, the current Congress has only been in session for a few months.

Thats raising a few eyebrows, including those of NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving, who joins us in the studio.

Ron, four Democrats, three Republicans, one independent are leaving. First of all, why are they announcing so early?

RON ELVING: Practical politics. The parties really want these guys to make up their minds early and make their announcement early, so that the parties can find someone else to run in their place and raise money for them.

HANSEN: Why are these senators leaving at all?

ELVING: I dont think they find it as fun to be in the Senate as they once did. Let's look at these ages. Youve got one 86-year-old, one 52-year-old - those are the outliers - but all the rest are in their mid- to late-60s. Four of these guys are committee chairs. You would think that they would just be hitting that point of maximum power, and getting a return on a lifetime of investment in politics.

Instead, a lot of them feel like it's just not worth it anymore. The Senate has gotten to be so dysfunctional and just unpleasant, in terms of the tactics that are being used. And the personal relationships are just not what they once were.

HANSEN: Could these departures lead to the loss of the Senate for Democrats?

ELVING: All four of the Democrats plus the independent, Joe Lieberman - who, of course, caucuses with the Democrats - any one of those five seats could go Republican. And if any one of the five could, we've seen big sweeps in Senate elections lately, and it's entirely possible the Democrats could lose all five of them. Not predicting it, but it's possible.

At the same time, the other three, the Republican seats, look a little firmer for the party that currently holds them. So it's conceivable that control of the Senate could turn just on these retirees alone.

HANSEN: Do you see a risk, though, that the three departing Republicans seats could actually be taken over by Democrats?

ELVING: Well, these are states in the West - in Texas, for Kay Bailey Hutchison; Arizona, for Jon Kyle; and Nevada - that have looked stronger for the Republicans in recent years. Certainly, Texas and Arizona have. Nevada could go either way. But Nevada, they have a strong incumbent congressman named Dean Heller, who looks like probably the strongest candidate for them. The Democrats might very well nominate a congresswoman of their own, Shelly Berkley.

HANSEN: Tell us more about who's likely to fill the void in each of these states.

ELVING: Well, in Hawaii, where Senator Danny Akaka has been in the Senate since 1990, his retirement would normally give the Democrats a pretty safe seat to defend. It's, after all, the president's home state. But former Governor Linda Lingle, two-term Republican governor, quite popular during her time in office, would be a formidable nominee for the Republicans there; many Democrats running for the Democratic nod in that state.

In New Mexico, you have the possibility of former congresswoman Heather Wilson running; also, John Sanchez, the lieutenant governor there and a Republican - probably against Democrat Martin Heinrich, from the House.

There's an interesting candidate in Connecticut, a younger congressman named Chris Murphy. He sort of redefines the term Watergate Baby. He wasnt elected in that year, of course. He was born in the Watergate year and now, he's in Congress. And he might very well run for that Lieberman seat. We'll see if Linda McMahon, the pro-wrestling executive, would be around for another go in that particular state.

North Dakota looking pretty tough for the Democrats; thats really going - strongly Republican in recent elections.

And in Virginia, you're going to see - probably - George Allen, the former senator who lost to current Senator Jim Webb five years ago, come back. And he'll most likely be running against Tim Kaine, who used to be governor of Virginia, now the Democratic national committee chairman.

HANSEN: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Ron, thank you very much.

ELVING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.