Democrats brace for flood of retirements after Virginia rout
Democrats are bracing for the possibility of a coming wave of retirements as the party comes to grips with a series of ominous electoral losses in Virginia and other states that portend trouble in the 2022 midterms.
Fourteen House Democrats have already announced that they will not seek reelection in 2022. But the painful string of defeats in Tuesday’s off-year elections is stirring speculation that more of the party’s incumbents may be eyeing the exits ahead of the midterms in hopes of avoiding brutal reelection campaigns or being relegated once again to the minority.
Republicans, emboldened by their recent victories, are already firing warning shots at House Democrats. In an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday, Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), gave vulnerable Democratic incumbents an ultimatum: “Retire or lose.”
Those remarks came as the NRCC expanded its list of targets on Wednesday, adding 13 new Democratic incumbents in solidly blue, suburban districts, sending a signal that the GOP is prepared to go on offense in parts of the country that they previously appeared unlikely to win.
“I think, before [Tuesday’s elections], there were some members already thinking about it,” one senior Democratic House aide said. “And if they weren’t, I’ll bet you they are now.”
The aide said there is little doubt among Democrats that more retirements are in the pipeline, but how many is still up in the air. While the 2021 elections dealt a blow to the party’s morale, the aide said, many Democrats are hopeful that they can reverse their fortunes by pressing forward on President Biden’s agenda.
Even before Tuesday’s elections, Democrats were staring down the prospect of a difficult midterm election cycle. For one, the decennial redistricting process is expected to bolster the GOP’s numbers in the House.
At the same time, the party of a new president almost always loses ground in Congress in midterm elections. With recent polls showing that a majority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track and Biden’s approval ratings dropping further underwater, the midterm landscape was already looking grim for Democrats.
But the elections in Virginia and New Jersey among other states laid bare the party’s challenges as they prepare to defend their House and Senate majorities in the 2022 midterms.
Republican Glenn Youngkin scored an upset victory over Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race, while Democrats saw their majority in the commonwealth’s House of Delegates evaporate. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) was only narrowly reelected to a second term after a closer-than-expected race against Republican Jack Ciattarelli.
The Democratic losses and the close call in the New Jersey governor’s race has Democrats scrambling to right their political ship.
“Tuesday’s elections are a warning for all Democrats,” Guy Cecil, the chairman of the largest Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, wrote in a post-election memo. “With midterm elections just a year away, we face a difficult set of challenges, some of our own making.”
Those who have already announced retirement plans include senior Democrats like Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) and David Price (D-N.C.), who have both served for decades in the House, and Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), the chair of the powerful House Budget Committee, though none of their seats are considered particularly vulnerable.
Others, such as Reps. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), Filemón Vela (D-Texas), Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) and Ron Kind (D-Wis.), represent districts that Republicans are targeting in 2022.
Not all of the Democrats foregoing reelection bids are retiring from public life. Reps. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), Val Demings (D-Fla.) and Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) are running for Senate seats, while Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) is running for Florida governor, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) is running for mayor of Los Angeles and Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) is running for Maryland attorney general.
Some of those House Democrats would have likely faced challenging reelection campaigns. Crist’s district, for instance, appears likely to be redrawn in a way that would make it more competitive for Republicans.
Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist, said that he expects more retirements in the runup to the 2022 midterms. But, he added, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Democrats, arguing that it paves the way for both a new class of candidates and broader change within the party.
“These things are kind of expected,” Seawright said. “We’re at a place in history where change is almost inevitable – from a policy and politician standpoint. It’s going to happen, and at the end of the day it’s going to be a mixed bag of change.”
“Politics is a game of transitions. I think as the country changes, as our party evolves, I think [retirements] will be reflective of that change,” he added. “It makes room for new leadership. It also makes room for new growth.”
Even so, retirements are often seen as an early sign of pessimism among a party’s incumbents ahead of midterm elections. What’s more, party leaders dread retirements because it is often easier to hold onto a seat when an incumbent is running than it is when the seat is wide open.
Ahead of the 2018 midterms, nearly two dozen GOP House incumbents retired from public office entirely. Democrats eventually went on to gain some 40 seats — and control of the House — that year in what was dubbed a “blue wave.”
Now no longer in power in Washington, Republicans are beginning to tout what they hope will be a coming “red wave” in 2022, pointing to their victories on Tuesday night as an early sign that the tables have turned since four years ago.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) predicted that his party could flip more than 60 House seats next year and that there would “be a lot of retirements” coming up.
“If you’re a Democrat and President Biden won your seat by 16 points, you’re in a competitive race next year, you are no longer safe,” McCarthy said.
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