Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms
Democrats are growing increasingly nervous about the mounting number of retirements by their incumbents in competitive House districts that former President Trump carried in 2020.
Of the seven House Democrats who represent Trump-won districts, two have already announced that they won’t seek reelection next year. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) announced her retirement plans in April, while Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) revealed just last week that he will not seek a 14th term in the House in 2022.
The retirements have become the subject of increasing hand-wringing among Democrats, who fear that an expectedly tough midterm cycle coupled with the possibility of competitive primaries in swing districts could ease the GOP’s path to the House majority next year.
“I think there’s a feeling that, in some of these districts, without the incumbents, it becomes that much harder,” one Democratic strategist who has worked on House races said. “We’re still talking about swing districts here. But I can’t imagine this is how anyone wanted the midterms to go down.”
Democrats also face the possibility that more of their members in Trump-won districts will bow out of their reelection bids.
Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) has not said whether she will run for reelection next year. She ruled out a Senate bid earlier this month but said she is still deciding whether to run for reelection or for Iowa governor.
“I’m still looking at some options that are out there,” she told reporters. “Certainly, my No. 1 job is to make sure that Iowa has the best representation possible, whether that’s at the state or federal level for the issues that we need.”
It’s not just incumbents from Trump-won districts like Bustos and Kind that are ducking out ahead of the midterms.
Reps. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) are both forgoing reelection to run for governor of their respective states next year. Likewise, Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) is challenging Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), while Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) is gunning for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat.
Two other House Democrats, Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) and Filemon Vela (D-Texas), have announced their retirements ahead of 2022. All of them, with the exception of Demings, are on the National Republican Congressional Committee’s target list next year.
Democrats are already clinging to one of the narrowest House majorities in decades after a worse-than-expected performance in 2020 that saw the party lose 13 seats in the lower chamber. The 2022 elections threaten to further chip away at their holdings, especially given the tendency for a new president’s party to lose ground in the midterms.
Making the situation even more dire for the party is the decennial redistricting process, which began in earnest last week when the Census Bureau released long-awaited district-level results of the 2020 count.
While those results showed an increasingly diverse and urban United States, Republicans control the legislatures — and consequently the redistricting process — in several key states, including Texas, Florida and North Carolina, all three of which will add House seats through reapportionment.
That raises the prospect that the GOP could retake the House majority through redistricting alone.
“The Republicans are going to milk the redistricting as much as possible,” one Democratic National Committee member said. “So if there’s anything that we can do, we need to make sure we’re holding the retirements to a minimum, because, structurally, we don’t have the advantage.”
To be sure, some Democrats are quick to argue that the House retirements this year haven’t yet reached a level that they say would signal an impending Republican wave election.
Twenty-three House Republicans retired ahead of the 2018 midterms that eventually saw Democrats win back control of the lower chamber. So far this year, only four House Democrats — Bustos, Kind and Reps. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) and Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) — have announced retirement plans.
“I don’t think there’s anything near a big wave, or signals that a trend is really in development yet,” Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist, said. “If you look at previous buildups to wave elections, there are lots of retirements.”
“Last time around, for Republicans, you had already seen far, far more — you saw the writing on the wall.”
Reinish also said that while the Trump-won districts represented by Democrats will inevitably be competitive for both parties, it’s not yet clear whether Republicans will have the same momentum as they did when Trump himself was on the ballot in 2020. He noted that former President Obama had carried several of those districts before they flipped for Trump.
“Here’s the deal: A lot of these districts are Obama-to-Trump districts. Without Trump at the top of the ticket, or at least in the White House, can you still call these Trump districts?” he said. “The fake Trumps that we’ve seen are not effective stand-ins for the real thing. And none of these districts that we’re talking about are extreme districts for either side.”
For now, there aren’t any immediate signs that other House Democrats in Trump-won districts are eyeing the exit ahead of 2022.
Axne may still choose to run for a third term representing her Des Moines-based district, and the four other Democrats in Trump-won districts — Reps. Jared Golden (Maine), Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), Matt Cartwright (Pa.) and Andy Kim (N.J.) — haven’t offered any indication that they’re considering stepping down after their current terms are up.
But the 2022 midterms are still more than a year away, and there’s plenty of time for incumbents to make decisions about their political future. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), for instance, didn’t announce his retirement plans until seven months before the 2018 midterm elections.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) predicted more Democratic retirements after Thanksgiving, when lawmakers will head back to their districts for the holiday.
“Once you get past Thanksgiving and members go home, and they’re Democrats and they’ve been challenged before and they’re going to get beat up … they’re going to make a decision to retire, that’s the best time so they can go get another job,” McCarthy told Fox News on Tuesday.
“When we get that retirement number up higher, into double-digit figures, the whole thing becomes a different play.”
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