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Wisconsin Democrat to leave Senate

Herb Kohl becomes the sixth member of his party to decide to step down from the chamber, adding to worries about the 2012 campaign.

May 14, 2011|By Michael A. Memoli and Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau
  • Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) won't run for reelection in 2012, he says.
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) won't run for reelection in 2012, he says. (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl announced that he will retire at the end of his current term, adding to Democratic woes in the party's effort to maintain control of the Senate.

The decision by Kohl, 76, had been rumored for months. He had not raised much for a 2012 campaign, though he could have tapped his personal wealth from his family's department store chain.

"I've always believed that it's better to leave a job a little too early than a little too late. And that's how I feel today," he said in Milwaukee. "Even though I continue to love this job, I have decided that the time has come to give someone else the opportunity to serve."

Kohl becomes the sixth member of the Democratic caucus to decide to leave the Senate since the start of the 112th Congress. Three Republican senators have said they will not seek reelection, including Nevada's John Ensign, who resigned this month.

For Democrats who had expressed hope that their field of incumbents was set, Kohl's decision was unwelcome news. The party is defending 23 seats in 2012, six of which are now open. They can lose no more than three seats to retain control of the chamber beyond 2012, depending on the outcome of the presidential election.

Wisconsin is one of a host of Democratic-leaning states that turned sharply toward the Republicans in the 2010 election. Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold lost his reelection bid that year to Republican Ron Johnson, and another Republican, Scott Walker, won the governorship.

A Democratic campaign source in Washington said the party was confident it could hold the seat, however, in part because of the controversy Walker generated as he led the effort to reshape the state's collective-bargaining laws.

"There is no place in the country where Republicans have overplayed their hand like they have in Wisconsin," said the source, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss strategy.

Potential Democratic candidates include Tom Barrett, the former Milwaukee mayor who lost to Walker last fall, and current Reps. Ron Kind and Tammy Baldwin. It's unclear whether Feingold might also be interested in returning to Congress, but liberal activists quickly launched a "draft" movement in hopes of luring him.

The eventual Democratic nominee should benefit from the fact that President Obama is expected to fiercely campaign for the state's 10 electoral votes next fall.

The Republican field remains wide open, and Kohl's decision will only invite more aspirants.

Rep. Paul D. Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, is at the top of some GOP strategists' wish list. He indicated he would give the race some thought.

Strategists also pointed to State Atty. Gen. J.B. Van Hollen, who won a statewide election in 2010, an otherwise grim year for the state GOP.

"Sen. Kohl's retirement, just like his Democrat colleagues who stepped aside before him, immediately presents another key opportunity for Senate Republicans next year," said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh.

Kohl's decision means that the five most senior Democrats facing reelection are all stepping down.

Kohl, who also owns the Milwaukee Bucks, is serving his fourth term.

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