Democratic retirements could make a tough midterm year even worse

House Budget Committee chairman John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthYarmuth slams Massie for gun-filled family Christmas photo Texas Democrat Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson announces retirement at end of term Dems brace for score on massive Biden bill MORE’s (D-Ky.) announcement this week that he will not seek another term presaged a critical period in the run-up to next year’s midterm elections as members of Congress contemplate whether to run for re-election in a difficult political environment or to call it quits and move to a new phase in life. 

Just how many members opt to call it quits in the looming retirement season — the period stretching after Labor Day and before Martin Luther King Jr. Day when members spend weeks at home with family and friends — will have a substantial impact on next year’s elections, and on the remainder of President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE’s first-term agenda, especially for Democrats who hold the narrowest of majorities in the House of Representatives. 

In recent years, bad election seasons have been made worse by waves of retirements that leave difficult-to-defend open seats up for grabs. Relatively few members of Congress have said they will quit so far this cycle, but the coming weeks mark the kickoff of what has traditionally been the period in which those who will retire say so publicly.

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Members of Congress have a host of reasons for leaving their jobs: Some have reached retirement age, even in a body where septuagenarians or octogenarians regularly hold onto their jobs. Others hear the siren song of a bigger paycheck in the private sector. Others still might fear years in the wilderness of the minority.

Every decade, another variable is thrown in the mix that is present this cycle: The redistricting process leaves some members open to challenges in districts that have been redrawn by the other party.

“It makes logical sense. You’re at home in the district, you’re hanging out with family and friends you grew up with,” said John Lapp, a former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “There’s a circadian rhythm to this.”

Parties are loathe to see their senior members retire, especially in difficult political environments. It is more difficult to defend an open seat, insiders say, than it is for a popular incumbent to withstand the headwinds. 

Ahead of midterms that are always difficult for a first-term president’s party, Democrats fear a tidal wave of departures that could make their task of holding the majority all the more difficult.

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So far, that wave has yet to crest: Relatively few members of the House of Representatives have said they will leave their jobs this year.  

Yarmuth was the 20th so far, and the 11th Democrat. Five are running for other office — Rep. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassFor Democrats it should be about votes, not megaphones Proposed California maps put incumbents in jeopardy Bass calls 'Black pastors' comment during Arbery trial 'despicable' MORE (D-Calif.) is running for mayor of Los Angeles; Reps. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsSununu exit underscores uncertain GOP path to gain Senate majority Democrats brace for flood of retirements after Virginia rout Rep. Brown to run for Maryland attorney general MORE (D-Fla.), Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanSenate race in Ohio poses crucial test for Democrats Democrats brace for flood of retirements after Virginia rout Ohio Republicans swing for fences in redistricting proposals MORE (D-Ohio) and Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) are running for Senate seats in their home states; and Rep. Charlie CristCharles (Charlie) Joseph CristDeSantis proposes civilian Florida State Guard military force he would control Florida Republicans debate how far to push congressional remap DeSantis officially files paperwork for reelection bid MORE (D-Fla.) is running for governor.

Among the six who are retiring from public life, Reps. Ann KirkpatrickAnn KirkpatrickDemocrats brace for flood of retirements after Virginia rout Two House Democrats to retire ahead of challenging midterms Two senior House Democrats to retire MORE (D-Ariz.), Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosCongress needs to act on the social determinants of health Democrats brace for flood of retirements after Virginia rout Democrats fear Virginia is precursor to House drubbing MORE (D-Ill.), Filemon VelaFilemon Bartolome VelaDemocrats brace for flood of retirements after Virginia rout Showdown: Pelosi dares liberals to sink infrastructure bill Vicente Gonzalez to run in different Texas district after Abbott signs new map MORE (D-Texas) and Ron KindRonald (Ron) James KindDemocrats brace for flood of retirements after Virginia rout Democrats unite to send infrastructure bill to Biden's desk Billionaire tax gains momentum MORE (D-Wis.) all hold relatively competitive seats — though all four districts are likely to change substantially in the decennial redistricting process. 

Another nine Republicans have said they will not seek re-election, all but three of whom — Reps. Tom ReedTom ReedGOP infighting just gets uglier Lawmakers who bucked their parties on the T infrastructure bill Democratic retirements could make a tough midterm year even worse MORE (R-N.Y.), Anthony GonzalezAnthony GonzalezPowell, Yellen say they underestimated inflation and supply snarls Texas Democrat Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson announces retirement at end of term The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Will Biden's big bill pass the House this week? MORE (R-Ohio) and Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyFive things to know about the November jobs report Economic growth rate slows to 2 percent as delta derails recovery Democratic retirements could make a tough midterm year even worse MORE (R-Texas) — are running for other office. Reps. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksJan. 6 organizers used burner phones to communicate with White House: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - House Democrats eye big vote on Biden measure Meadows comes under growing Jan. 6 panel spotlight MORE (R-Ala.), Vicky Hartlzer (R-Mo.), Billy LongWilliam (Billy) H. LongHouse passes bills to secure telecommunications infrastructure Democratic retirements could make a tough midterm year even worse Hartzler pulls in 6,000 for Missouri Senate bid with .65M on hand MORE (R-Mo.) and Ted BuddTheodore (Ted) Paul BuddThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - House Democrats eye big vote on Biden measure GOP primary fights escalate after Trump's endorsements Former GOP Rep. Mark Walker fielding calls about dropping NC Senate bid, running for House MORE (R-N.C.) are running for U.S. Senate seats. Rep. Lee ZeldinLee ZeldinRudy Giuliani becomes grandfather after son welcomes child Rep. Suozzi to run for New York governor House GOP seek to block Biden from reopening Palestinian mission in Jerusalem MORE (R-N.Y.) is running for governor, and Rep. Jody HiceJody Brownlow HiceA woke military is no defense at all — why Defense bill in current form must not pass Gosar faces increasing odds of censure on House floor Cheney, Kinzinger signal they'd back Gosar censure MORE (R-Ga.) is running for Secretary of State. 

A glut of open seats can make a bad political environment much worse for the party that suffers. In the Democratic wave of 2008, 12 of the 21 seats Republicans lost were held by incumbents who opted not to run again. Two years later, Republicans won 14 seats in which incumbent Democrats did not appear on the ballot. In 2018, 37 Republicans did not seek re-election — and Democrats won 13 of those seats.

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Party committees work hard to minimize the number of retirees. Neither the DCCC nor the National Republican Congressional Committee would detail their outreach to potential retirees this year, but veterans of committees past said they would routinely set up monitoring systems, designating some members to keep tabs on colleagues and friends.  

“We basically had a buddy system. We put together a list of everybody we suspected might be considering retirement, and we assigned a person to each one of those to have a frank conversation,” said former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who ran the DCCC in the late 1990s. “It is really important that people like [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi, [Majority Leader Steny] Hoyer and [Majority Whip Jim] Clyburn, as well as other people in leadership, talk to anybody who might be considering retirement.” 

While the parties convince their own members to stay, they also engage in the dark arts of encouraging members on the other side to quit. Party committees routinely hint that they will make life difficult for members who might have coasted to re-election in previous years. 

This cycle, the NRCC spotlighted 27 Democrats they see as potential retirees. Some, like Bass and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezPressure grows to remove Boebert from committees Kevin McCarthy is hostage to the GOP's 'exotic wing' Hospitals in underserved communities face huge cuts in reckless 'Build Back Better' plan MORE (D-N.Y.) and Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottIndustry, labor groups at odds over financial penalties in spending package Historically Black colleges and universities could see historic funding under Biden plan Republican Winsome Sears wins Virginia lieutenant governor's race MORE (D-Va.), hold safely Democratic seats. Others, like Reps. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyFlorida Republicans debate how far to push congressional remap Five takeaways: House passes Biden's sweeping benefits bill Overnight Energy & Environment — House passes giant climate, social policy bill MORE (D-Fla.), Cindy AxneCindy AxneOn The Money — Congress races to keep the lights on House Democrats call on leaders to pass supply chain legislation Top House Democratic group launches six-figure ad campaign to sell infrastructure package MORE (D-Iowa) and Chris PappasChristopher (Chris) Charles PappasChris Pappas launches reelection bid in New Hampshire Top House Democratic group launches six-figure ad campaign to sell infrastructure package Booker headlining Democratic fundraiser in New Hampshire MORE (D-N.H.), hold seats that are either competitive or could change substantially in redistricting.

Eight of the 27 on the list have already announced their departures.

“If vulnerable Democrats were smart, they’d retire now and save themselves the embarrassment of having to defend their toxic socialist agenda,” NRCC spokesman Michael McAdams said in an email.

A DCCC spokesman declined to comment on the record for this story. 

So far, few members are rushing to the exits. But plenty of variables remain: If the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Democratic reconciliation package collapse, or if former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) loses his comeback bid, or if President Biden’s approval ratings flatten, members could stampede to the exits like buffalo spooked by thunder. 

“People are wanting to stay and fight and hold the majority and grow,” Lapp said. “It’s when you get into the epic Republican retirement level [of 2006 and 2008] where they’re just running for the hills that on the Democratic side would be a problem.”

Even a friend’s departure can make another member reconsider his or her own future — Yarmuth said his close ally, Rep. Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenProgressives win again: No infrastructure vote Thursday Liberals defy Pelosi, say they'll block infrastructure bill Can the US Navy fight and win a war? MORE (D-Tenn.), was “agonizing” over whether to run for re-election, prompting Cohen to commit to another term. 

“It tends to be like the flu,” Frost said. “If someone’s good friend and contemporary decides to retire, then maybe that person decides well maybe I should retire too.”