WASHINGTON -- For members of Congress, this is the time to get serious about seeking re-election next year or leaving office for something new. So far, only one party is heading for the exits.
While 17 Republicans have decided to throw in the towel on their Capitol Hill careers, only two Democrats are calling it quits -- and both of them are seeking higher congressional office. The disparity underscores the different moods prevailing in the two parties: Democrats, heady from winning control of Congress in 2006, are enjoying the fruits of power. Republicans, their party reduced to minority status in the House and Senate, see more allure in retirement or private life.
"I don't like being in the minority," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., who was first elected in the 1994 GOP landslide and will retire after this term. "It's not that much fun, and the prospects for the future don't look that good."
The wave of retirements compounds the political challenge facing the GOP in the 2008 congressional elections, because the party is significantly trailing its Democratic counterparts in fund raising.
That means Republicans will be defending more House and Senate seats with less money and will be fighting battles in places that otherwise would have been secure.
Additionally, many of the Republicans choosing to retire are older, more pragmatic lawmakers, such as Rep. Ralph Regula of Ohio, moderates such as Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio and Sen. John Warner of Virginia, and mavericks such as Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel. These departures fuel the generational and ideological changes that have pushed the Republican contingent in Congress steadily to the right during the past decade.
Eddie Mahe, a former GOP official, said it is no surprise that many Republicans are thinking about quitting politics at a time when President Bush's popular-ity is low, Iraq is in turmoil and the U.S. economy might be going soft.
"If I was talking to my favorite brother-in-law and he was thinking about running for Congress, I would say, 'Why would you want to do that now?' " Mahe said. "If anybody's not smart enough to figure that out, I don't want them around, anyway."
Democrats have their own political vulnerabilities: Despite disillusionment with the GOP, many voters are not satisfied with Democratic control of Congress. A recent poll conducted for National Public Radio found that Congress' job approval rating has slipped to 25 percent, down from 36 percent in April.
Still, against that backdrop, more Republicans than Democrats are abandoning the institution. Five Senate Republicans and 12 House Republicans have announced they will retire. No Senate Democrats are retiring, and only two have said they will leave the House -- to run for the Senate.
Retirements are crucial to congressional election strategy because, in most cases, it is easier for a party to hold onto a seat when its incumbent runs again than to retain a seat opened by retirement.
Republicans will be fighting for their seats with fewer resources: As of the end of August, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had $22.1 million in cash on hand, compared with $1.6 million held by the GOP House committee.
There is a similar imbalance in fund raising for Senate races: As of the end of August, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had $20.6 million in the bank; its Republican counterpart had only $7.1 million.
That financial disadvantage is especially problematic for Republicans, because next year, the party must defend 22 of its 49 Senate seats, compared with 12 Senate seats to be defended by Democrats.