We’re six days into 2010, and already we have four significant Democratic retirements.  Senators Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan, Governor Bill Ritter of Colorado, and Michigan’s Lt. Governor John Cherry have all decided to end their election bids for this year; Cherry was the frontrunner for Governor in his state.  Politico’s Manu Raju and Josh Kraushaar wonder whether this may be a trend:

Four top Democrats—including veteran Sens. Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan—all prepared to pull the plug on their campaigns in a 24-hour period that began Tuesday, and in the process, offered an unnerving glimpse at the perilous election year ahead.

With Dorgan’s stunning retirement announcement Tuesday evening, Democrats are now facing their bleakest election outlook in years—and the very real possibility the party will lose its 60-40 Senate supermajority after the November elections. On the House side, the prospect of heavy 20-30 seat losses is already looking increasingly likely. …

Yet the retirements of two senior Democratic senators, and the suddenly altered landscapes in Michigan and Colorado, continue a wave of Democratic bail outs that began with a burst of retirements by veteran House Democrats representing competitive districts, followed by the stunning late December party switch by freshman Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith.

In the meantime, President Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s poll ratings have slipped across the board, generic polling is now generally more favorable to Republicans and a handful of promising Democratic House candidates have abruptly ended their campaigns.

Suddenly, the sad sack GOP is looking at its best shot in three election cycles of making serious gains in November.

First, I don’t know of anyone who has seriously thought that Democrats would hold a 60-seat Senate majority for longer than one session of Congress.  While the numbers don’t favor a Republican return to power in the upper chamber, the party controlling the White House almost always loses seats in midterm elections.  Democrats would have done well to limit the damage to a couple of seats, but they’ve lost that many through retirement already.  Republicans have a shot at picking up perhaps four or five seats, which would significantly change the dynamic in Congress.

But Republicans may do better than that, and certainly will in the House.  The latest Rasmussen polling on the generic Congressional ballot shows them with their largest lead in years:

Republican candidates start the year by opening a nine-point lead over Democrats, the GOP’s biggest in several years, in the latest edition of the Generic Congressional Ballot.

The new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 44% would vote for their district’s Republican congressional candidate while 35% would opt for his or her Democratic opponent.

In the past, Republicans have picked up seats even while slightly trailing on this polling question.  A nine-point GOP lead translates to a very bad November for Democrats.

What do these retirements mean, though?  Some will argue that it shows that Barack Obama has no coattails, but that’s not entirely accurate or applicable.  Coattails come into play when a President is actually on the ballot.  If Democrats had Obama on the ticket, they might be more likely to fight an election campaign and hope that Obama can get the kind of turnout he did in 2008.  The problem is that the Democratic agenda has motivated its opponents, and Democratic performance in leadership has demotivated its base and alienated the independents who put them in power.

Don’t expect these to be the last retirements we see, either, or Parker Griffith to be the only aisle-jumper.  However, the window of opportunity for both will rapidly close, as primary schedules dictate both actions.  For Democrats who want to retire, they have to leave enough time for a replacement candidate to gain the nomination.  For aisle-jumpers, the timing is even more fraught: they have to switch parties in time to either discourage Republicans from mounting primary campaigns or to beat them at it.  If Democrats are still retiring or switching parties in March, they will be in deep trouble.