In what may be the biggest sign of Democratic despair in this midterm cycle, House Appropriations Chair David Obey has decided not seek re-election.  In his district, that means that Sean Duffy’s chances for winning the election have markedly increased.  For Democrats nationwide, it may be a harbinger of a devastating midterm cycle:

In a major blow to Democrats, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey has told close associates that he will not seek re-election and an announcement of his plans is expected as early as Wednesday.

The Wisconsin Democrat faces tough poll numbers at home, but until Tuesday night his staff had insisted he was running aggressively and had hired campaign staff. But a person close to him confirmed the decision to POLITICO Wednesday and said Obey was preparing to make a statement. …

Obey’s frustration with the White House has been no secret either, and his unhappiness helps explain the repeated delays in the House over moving ahead with new funding for the war in Afghanistan. He himself is torn about the President Barack Obama’s commitment of increased U.S. troops at a time of continued economic troubles at home. And after first setting a Memorial Day deadline, Democrats admit privately that Congress may not complete action on the package until the July Fourth recess.

The combination of his retirement—and Murtha’s death—means a major change in the hierarchy of the Appropriations panel itself. And if Democrats retain power, Rep. Norman Dicks (D—Wash) will be pushed to the forefront after serving until recently as chairman of the Interior and natural resources subcommittee, overseeing one of the smaller of the dozen annual bills.

When committee chairs retire, it usually means they don’t expect to remain committee chairs for very much longer.  When an Appropriations Committee chair retires — a position considered one of the pinnacles of Congressional power — then that goes double.  Obey had an iron grip on power and wielded it to great effect, except on the issue of Afghanistan.  On that issue, Barack Obama circumvented Obey’s power of the purse by allying with Republicans and moderate Democrats for war funding.

That wouldn’t have pushed Obey into retirement alone, though.  Expect to hear about family obligations or health issues in his announcement later today, but Obey had already begun fighting a hard campaign against Duffy.  Until now, no one expected Duffy to oppose anyone else but Obey.

Speaking of which, who will Duffy face now?  Whoever jumps into this race will have significant disadvantages on fundraising, organization, and name recognition.  They also will have the albatross of the unpopular Democratic agenda around their neck.  While Duffy had an uphill battle to unseat a powerful incumbent, he may now have to guard against overoptimism.