Bill Thomas is not a household name - actually, it sounds like a name found in any household - but it's an important name in politics this morning. There's a Bill Thomas serving in Congress, a very powerful House leader who has advanced the Bush agenda since 2001, but now he has announced that he will not run for reelection in November.
What's significant is that he's merely the latest congressional Republican to announce his retirement, thereby fueling more talk about whether GOP lawmakers are starting to rush for the exits, in anticipation of a Democratic takeover on Capitol Hill in the sixth year of President Bush's increasingly embattled tenure. That's certainly what happened to the Democrats in 1994, when Bill Clinton's woeful initial performance inspired as many as 30 congressional Democrats to abandon ship (and we know what happened that November: enter the Newt Gingrich majority).
Naturally, the Democrats right now are acting gleeful about the prospect of more GOP retirements - three have been announced during the past two weeks - because retirements create open seats, and open seats (theoretically, anyway) are more ripe for the taking than seats defended by incumbents who have all the incumbent advantages, such as money and name recognition. With Thomas stepping down, there are 26 open seats -- 17 of them abandoned by Republicans. If Democrats can pick up 15 House seats in November, they take over the chamber.
But that's tougher than it sounds, even with these GOP retirements. Thus far, virtually all of the retirees hail from districts that are solidly Republican - voters in Thomas' California district gave Bush 68 percent of the vote in the '04 presidential election - so it's hardly a cinch for Democrats to turn those seats.
The future, however, may be brighter, if (as many predict) incumbent Republicans from more competitive districts decide to bail out in the months ahead. That could hinge on whether Bush's standing continues to slide, along with the prospects for succeess in Iraq, and along with the prospects for quick closure in the Jack Abramoff case.
Abramoff, the conservative idealogue who morphed into a super lobbyist and confessed felon, is still a wild card whose ties to the Republican majority may still provide fresh embarrassments -- check out the third and fourth paragraphs of this story -- for certain vulnerable incumbents. Such as Tom DeLay, who faces a competitive primary contest today (see my March 4 posting) and a tough re-election race in November.
And speaking of Abramoff: Another way to gauge his impact on GOP fortunes is keep an eye on Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition director who is trying to get elected as lieutenant governor of Georgia. To put it mildly, Reed is an ambitious guy who does not see the number-two Georgia job as his ultimate destination.
But his lucrative financial ties to Abramoff, his pal of several decades, may well trip him up.
Reed must first win a GOP primary in August, and he's facing tough competition from a state senator and fellow conservative, Casey Cagle. Cagle is raising more money than Reed at this point, and a majority of state senate Republicans sent Reed a letter the other day, demanding that Reed quit the race.
Reed hasn't been charged with any crime, but his Abramoff baggage is a big reason why his career plan might go awry; for starters, a U.S. Senate investigation has unearthed stacks of emails between Abramoff and Reed, indicating a close lobbying relationship. Moreover, Reed has been insisting for months that when he signed up in 2000 to lobby against a proposed congressional ban on Internet gambling, he had no idea that his client was an online lottery firm with ties to Abramoff. Yet now comes evidence, laid out here, which suggests that he knew all along. He's still deying it, though.