Democratic retirements could make a tough midterm year even worse
House Budget Committee chairman John Yarmuth’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 Biden’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.
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.
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 Bass (D-Calif.) is running for mayor of Los Angeles; Reps. Val Demings (D-Fla.), Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) are running for Senate seats in their home states; and Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) is running for governor.
Among the six who are retiring from public life, Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), Filemon Vela (D-Texas) and Ron Kind (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 Reed (R-N.Y.), Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) and Kevin Brady (R-Texas) — are running for other office. Reps. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), Vicky Hartlzer (R-Mo.), Billy Long (R-Mo.) and Ted Budd (R-N.C.) are running for U.S. Senate seats. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) is running for governor, and Rep. Jody Hice (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.
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-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.), hold safely Democratic seats. Others, like Reps. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) and Chris Pappas (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 Cohen (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.”