The abrupt announcements from Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) that they will not seek re-election in 2010 signaled the beginning of a campaign season that promises to be explosive.
Democratic officials denied that the announcements - along with additional pullouts from state races in Colorado and Michigan - were cause for panic. Indeed, most of the moves cleared the way for stronger Democratic candidates.
"Overall it's a net positive," said one White House official. "Except for Dorgan."
In Michigan, lieutenant governor John Cherry dropped his bid for governor. In Colorado, Gov. Bill Ritter announced he won't seek re-election. In Connecticut, Dodd was unable to shake the perception that he had been corrupted by financial interests, and seemed destined for an ignoble defeat. In all three races, the White House ostensibly gained by getting poorly polling candidates off the Democratic ticket.
But the departure of Dodd and Dorgan (and their combined 65-plus years of congressional experience) from the political scene has nonetheless had a jarring effect, sending a clear signal that incumbency in this anti-Washington climate is a potentially deadly burden.
Incumbency normally carries huge advantages for candidates - a factor that tends to temper the volatility of elections even in changing times. Now all bets are off.
Democratic strategists seem to be coalescing around the notion that if Democrats are to win next November, it will be by going on offense.
"I don't think you are going to see a bunch of particularly positive races," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster with extensive experience in congressional races. "Challengers are going to go after incumbents early to paint them as creatures of Washington. And incumbents will have to run ads to get their challengers defined early on," she added. "You can expect record negative campaigning... I don't think there will be a lot of feel good ads this cycle."
Meanwhile, the Republican primaries are shaping up to be explosive preludes to the general election. Republicans "are having some really bloodletting primaries in virtually all of their states. Particularly in open-seats, they are having these huge primaries," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman Robert Menendez told the Huffington Post. "Whether it is the tea party people or the birthers or others. The reality is that the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, they keep pushing their candidates further and further to the right... So, the bottom line is, they are going to be out of synch of where the mainstream electorate is in the mid term election."
Historically, Democrats are in trouble. Only three times since the Civil War has the president's party sustained or enhanced their congressional numbers in the first mid-term election. Party officials are well aware of this precedent.
But not every Democrat sees a political cat fight as the inevitable 2010 end game, especially if the party passes health care reform into law and job creation speeds up.
"I think this [talk of Democratic trouble] is all instant analysis," said longtime strategist Bob Shrum. "And you know, this election, the outcome is going to be determined not by these events but about where we are economically in the summer and whether we pass health care which we will. And I don't think the Republicans will have anything to say... if the economy recovers and say we are at 7.5 percent unemployment. People who want to know what is going to happen in 2010 you should read the business page, not the politics page."
But there's no denying the suddenness of the Dorgan and Dodd announcements. Neither senators' staff was informed about the retirements until the day before they were announced. And even Dodd, who seemed caught in an inescapable hole in his efforts for a sixth term, was full-speed-ahead with re-election plans until the recent break.
An aide to the Connecticut Democrat said he was unaware of any pressure -- whether from the party committees or the White House -- for Dodd to drop his bid. If anything, party leaders were circling the wagons in support. Vice President Joseph Biden was in Connecticut two weeks ago to campaign on Dodd's behalf; an event the senator missed because of his work on health care reform. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, likewise, was scheduled to make a Nutmeg State stop, as was Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
"It was a tough climate but I thought we could pull it out," said the Dodd aide. "He was more revved up than ever about doing this. But when he looked at everything that was going around in his life [health-wise and with his family] he just figured it wasn't something he could do."
"There was a path," concurred Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who lives in the state. "But it was very hard."
The worry going forward for Democrats is that other, strong candidates will be influenced by Dodd's political and, perhaps, personal calculus. On the Hill, aides said the news of the two senior Democrats' departures was like a shot in the gut -- a realization that all of the hard legislative work put in over the past year hadn't actually helped the party's standing with the public. If anything, aides lamented, the time spent hammering out health care in the halls of Congress had made them more vulnerable back home.
"This is not easy work," said one senior aide. "Members are exhausted. [Majority Leader Harry] Reid was hearing from all his members that they wanted to be home more. That they wanted to be with their constituents more. Members from home states haven't been there for any lengthy time since August. And so, I think members are sensing, particularly in red states that the fight is harder right now."