What Does Barney Frank's Departure Mean for 2012?

After serving sixteen terms in Congress – and capping off his legislative career with the most expansive financial regulation in decades – Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank (who turned 71 this year) is more than entitled to a retirement. But even if he’s vacating a traditionally Democratic seat, his departure furthers the perception that Democrats are pessimistic about regaining the House of Representatives in next year’s elections.

Already, Democrats have seen seventeen retirements, the most recent of which was last week, when Texas Rep. Charlie Gonzalez announced his intention to forgo a reelection campaign next year. It should go without saying that mass retirements are never a good sign for a party that seeks a legislative majority. For every candidate that leaves Congress, national Democrats have to recruit new (possibly inexperienced) candidates, and devote funds to their campaigns. For party leaders eager to hold onto their advantage in competitive districts, the stakes are even higher, which can lead them to make cautious and conservative choices in candidate selection.

Barney Frank won’t be replaced by a Blue Dog Democrat, but there’s a strong chance that his successor will be somewhat less liberal. As Dave Weigel notes, Frank’s district will be rezoned to include a few conservative towns, making it more competitive than its been in the past. Republicans will have a shot at the district, and even if it’s a long one, the Democrats who want to replace Frank will keep it in mind, and moderate accordingly.