As others have noted, media coverage of the surprise retirements of Democratic senators Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan has been shockingly bad.
First, many outlets have exaggerated the damage that was done to Democratic prospects in November. Consider this statement by Melissa Block on NPR's All Things Considered:
2010 just got tougher for Democrats now that two Democratic Senators have announced retirements... NPR's David Welna explains that those two departures could jeopardize the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority.
But in reality, the net effect of the two decisions on the number of seats Democrats will retain in the Senate is likely to be small. Dodd's departure cleared the way for Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a much more popular figure, to enter the race, while Dorgan's departure substantially increased the likelihood that North Dakota governor John Hoeven will capture the seat for the GOP.
This offsetting effect can be seen nicely in the Intrade futures contracts for Democrats holding the two seats (caveat: small trading volumes):
Second, other outlets played up the retirements as indicators that President Obama faces a difficult political environment while downplaying the unique challenges that the two senators faced. For instance, here's what Jeff Zeleny and Adam Nagourney wrote in the New York Times:
The sudden decision by two senior Democratic senators to retire shook the party’s leaders on Wednesday and signaled that President Obama is facing a perilous political environment that could hold major implications for this year’s midterm elections and his own agenda.
The rapidly shifting climate, less than a year after Mr. Obama took office on the strength of a historic Democratic sweep, was brought into focus by the announcements that Senators Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota would retire rather than wage uphill fights for re-election...
Together, the developments heightened a perception that a conservative push against the president’s ambitious agenda, a sluggish recovery from the deep recession and an outbreak of angry populism have combined to deplete Mr. Obama’s political strength and give Republicans a chance for big gains in this year’s races for the Senate and the House.
To the degree that the retirements reflect increasing skepticism among voters about the direction Democrats are pushing the country, Mr. Obama could face a tougher time winning legislative support as he presses ahead with initiatives on climate change, financial regulation, education and other issues.
While the political context is likely to have contributed to their retirement decisions, Dodd and Dorgan were not primarily at risk because of "increasing skepticism among voters about the direction Democrats are pushing the country." Dodd was seen as vulnerable long before any backlash against Democrats took form. Indeed, a plurality of Connecticut voters disapproved of him back in February during President Obama's honeymoon. By contrast, Dorgan is a popular figure in North Dakota who would not have ordinarily been seen as especially vulnerable, but he faced the prospect of a challenge from a wildly popular governor.
Again, the environment is certainly unfavorable for Democrats, who are likely to suffer substantial losses in 2010. With that said, however, it's not clear that the Dodd/Dorgan retirements made things worse or are even especially informative about the magnitude of the threat.
Update 1/14 10:53 AM: Eric Boehlert flags another example of bad reporting on the Dodd retirement from the Wall Street Journal.