Two House Democrats to retire ahead of challenging midterms

Two House Democrats to retire ahead of challenging midterms
© Greg Nash

Two longtime House Democrats announced on Monday that they won’t seek reelection, creating more open seats as the party faces tough political headwinds in next year’s midterm elections. 

Departing Reps. Mike DoyleMichael (Mike) F. DoyleHouse passes bipartisan bills to strengthen network security, cyber literacy Texas Democrat Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson announces retirement at end of term Midterm gloom grows for Democrats MORE (Pa.) and David PriceDavid Eugene PriceOvernight Defense & National Security — Biden officials consider more Ukraine aid Biden, first lady have 'Friendsgiving' meal with military troops Texas Democrat Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson announces retirement at end of term MORE (N.C.) both represent districts that are currently Democratic strongholds and at this point don’t appear likely to fall into GOP hands.

But the loss of multiple senior members is a potential sign of a party struggling both to maintain morale and pass a sweeping agenda in a progressively worsening political environment as recent polls show 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 approval rating sagging.

ADVERTISEMENT

Democrats may have more retirements to worry about in the coming weeks as other lawmakers decide whether they want to campaign for reelection next year when the party faces an uphill battle to keep control of the House.

Republicans only need to flip a net five seats to win the House majority. Decennial redistricting alone could potentially tip the scales in the GOP’s favor, especially while Democrats hold such razor-thin margins of power in Congress.

History is not in Democrats’ favor, either, since the president’s party tends to lose seats in midterm elections.

And a large number of additional retirements by popular incumbents, especially in competitive districts, could make it even harder for Democrats next year.

Another senior Democrat, 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 (Ky.), also announced last week that he will retire ahead of the midterms even though he still expects his district will remain heavily Democratic in redistricting.

That brings the current total of House Democrats opting not to seek reelection to 12, including five who are seeking other offices.

Republicans pounced on the departures of three long-serving Democrats as a sign that the political winds are blowing in the GOP’s favor.

“Smart Democrats are fleeing Congress as fast as humanly possible because they know Democrats’ majority is coming to an end,” said Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Ian Russell, a former top strategist for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), predicted that more incumbent lawmakers would make decisions about whether to run for reelection as states complete their redistricting work.

“I’m sure members are also keeping an eye on the political weather, trying to divine how 2022 is shaping up,” Russell said.

Russell said that in his experience, party committees worked hard behind the scenes to convince incumbents in competitive districts to run for reelection since open seats are typically much harder to defend. 

“When I was at DCCC, we’d beg, plead and cajole members in seats like that to run again. It was a huge priority for leadership,” Russell said. 

Democrats contend the members who have announced their retirements in recent days will not prove difficult to replace, because they hail from blue bastions. The real trouble comes when members in competitive seats start calling it quits.

“There’s a world of difference between retirements in safe seats and retirements in swing seats. Longtime members retiring is always sad, but frontline district retirements are dangerous,” said Jesse Ferguson, a former top DCCC staffer. “It’s not a one-sided retirement season. So far we’ve seen retirements on both sides.”

So far, four of the House Democrats not seeking reelection represent relatively competitive districts: 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 (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 (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 (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 (Wis.). But it’s possible those districts will be modified in redistricting with new political landscapes.

A similar number of House Republicans are calling it quits, with six launching campaigns for other offices and three retiring from public life.

One former top official recalled the 2010 Republican landslide, when the GOP carried several seats left open by Democrats who read the writing on the wall.

“When you saw John Tanner and Bart Gordon and Vic Snyder, people from Republican-leaning seats announce their retirements, that spelled peril for the midterms,” the Democrat said.

ADVERTISEMENT

Democrats point to prominent candidates challenging incumbent Republicans as evidence that the party is not surrendering the majority. They cited challengers who have announced bids against Reps. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) and David ValadaoDavid Goncalves ValadaoJarring GOP divisions come back into spotlight Trump allies target Katko over infrastructure vote Two House Democrats to retire ahead of challenging midterms MORE (R-Calif.) as promising recruits.

A DCCC spokesman downplayed the spate of incumbent retirements while leaning into the party’s strategy of casting the GOP as extremists.

“Incumbent or not, we’re confident in our ability to win the House yet again because while voters see Democratic members and candidates focused on rebooting the economy and getting folks back on the job, Republicans are campaigning on junk science that is endangering people’s lives and false election claims that threaten our democracy,” said DCCC spokesman Chris Taylor.

Doyle, for his part, cited redistricting that will likely reshape his Pittsburgh-based district’s boundaries as a factor in his decision to retire. Like Yarmuth, he also cited a desire to spend more time with his family in retirement, adding that “the pandemic has accelerated those plans.”

“I believe the time has come to pass the torch to the next generation,” Doyle said in a statement. “This is a good transition time for a new member to start in a newly drawn district.”

Pennsylvania is set to lose a seat in redistricting, while North Carolina is set to gain one. Neither state has proposed new congressional maps yet. But with GOP-controlled legislatures and Democratic governors in both states, it appears likely that there will be fights in the courts before the maps are finalized.

Price, meanwhile, is a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and heads a subcommittee that oversees the departments of Transportation and of Housing and Urban Development. He also chairs the House Democracy Partnership, a bipartisan commission within the House that works with other countries to promote effective legislatures — and sounded an existential note about the future of American democracy in his retirement announcement.

“Most of what we do remains a work in progress. That is certainly evident now, as we strive to secure long overdue investments in our transportation and housing infrastructure, child care and early childhood education, and other pressing needs. Looming over it all is the frightful legacy of the last four years and urgent questions about the future of our constitutional democracy,” Price said.