On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood
House Democrats facing an uphill fight to retain control of the lower chamber are finding their mission all the more imperiled by a wave of incumbents who have opted against seeking another term in Congress later this year, a troubling sign of pessimism from those who see an unappealing life in the minority ahead.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) this week became the 26th House Democrat to say he will not seek a new term in office this year. He is the 18th member to say he will quit politics outright, while another eight are running for another office.
Already, more Democrats have called it quits this year than in any cycle since 1996, when 29 members newly in the minority decided not to run again. The same number of Democrats, 29, retired in 1994, the year Republicans reclaimed control of Congress for the first time in four decades.
The exodus may not be over yet. Several Democratic incumbents have not said whether they will seek another term, and others are likely waiting to see the new district lines they would have to run under after the decennial redistricting process concludes.
In many districts where incumbents are retiring, there is little chance of a Republican takeover; members like Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) or Karen Bass (D-Calif.) or Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) or John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), among a dozen others, all hold seats that will almost certainly elect a Democrat to replace them.
“House Democrats head toward November with the record-breaking fundraising to make a clear pitch to voters: elect House Democrats that created millions of jobs or extremist House Republicans who are hell-bent on prolonging the pandemic,” said Chris Taylor, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “They’ll have to defend a record that includes voting to block COVID relief, voting against investing in America, and peddling dangerous conspiracies.”
But the departures are a reflection of a deeper anxiety over their party’s chances of holding onto power next year. Members who have spent four years in the majority, including the last two under a Democratic president, do not relish life in the powerless minority, when their jobs amount to little more than collecting a paycheck and voting against the majority’s priorities.
“There is a lot of weariness and frustration in the ranks,” said Ian Russell, a former top DCCC official. “The good news for Democrats, so far, is that with a few notable exceptions, the retirements have been in safe seats as opposed to front-line [competitive] districts.”
Historically, members of Congress head to the exits when they foresee a difficult election year ahead. More than three dozen Republicans retired in 2018, including then-Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), as it became increasingly clear that Democrats would win back control of the House.
In 2006, 18 Republicans bolted for the exits, and 27 more left in 2008, when it became clear that Americans would deliver a big verdict against then-President George W. Bush’s party, sending Democrats into a much larger majority.
The wave of departures that presaged the 1994 Republican revolution stands as a point of comparison: Among those who quit rather than seeking another term that year were Rep. Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.), powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee; Rep. J.J. Pickle (D-Texas), the third-ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee; and Rep. David McCurdy (D-Okla.), a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Among those heading for the exits this year are members who are at retirement age, even in a business where the typical retiree doesn’t hang up the spikes until well after the average American. Rush is 75; Yarmuth, 74; Reps. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), both 80; and Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), 81.
But the departures include younger members who were once seen as rising stars. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who headed the DCCC last cycle, is just 60. Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a top member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, is just 43. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), 48, is leaving too, to run for a seat in the Senate.
Several members who would see their roles greatly diminished in the minority are among those stepping into retirement, including House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.); Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who heads a Foreign Affairs subcommittee; and Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), who runs an Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
Even when the outcome of elections looks obvious, some members of the favored party depart for greener pastures. This year, 11 House Republicans have also announced their exits, including Reps. Kevin Brady (Texas) and Tom Reed (N.Y.), both of whom are close to House Republican leadership. More tellingly for the GOP, also among the retirees are Reps. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) and Anthony Gonzalez (Ohio), two of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach former President Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
That is similar to the number of Republicans who departed in 1994 — a cohort that included then-Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.), paving the way for Newt Gingrich to become Speaker — or the 10 Democrats who quit in 2006, or the 18 Democrats who decided against running again in 2018.
Democratic strategists looking for an upside said the exits are part of a natural churn necessary to refresh a caucus that is aging substantially — all three of the top Democratic leaders are in their 80s, after all.
“The silver lining is we’ll have new energy, new ideas from people elected in 2022 who can move the party and the country forward before the next presidential election,” said Martha McKenna, a Baltimore-based Democratic strategist. “Every chance we get to make Congress look more like America is a good thing.”
On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2022 elections.