Democrats confront rising retirements as difficult year ends
House Democrats are facing a growing wave of retirements as they close out 2021 and enter what’s expected to be a challenging midterm election year.
The string of retirement announcements in recent days cap off what’s already been a demoralizing end to Democrats’ first year in power of Washington since Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) declared he couldn’t support the party’s social spending and climate package.
More retirement announcements are likely in the coming days and weeks as lawmakers are home for the holidays with their families and decide they’d rather not have to keep making the regular trek to the House.
In the span of 24 hours earlier this week, three Democrats announced they wouldn’t run for reelection next year: Reps. Stephanie Murphy (Fla.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.) and Albio Sires (N.J.).
That followed Rep. Alan Lowenthal’s (D-Calif.) retirement announcement last week, as well as that of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) earlier this month.
Thanksgiving to mid-January is typically the peak time frame for lawmaker retirement announcements as they spend time at home over the holidays, reflect on the state of Congress at year’s end, and get closer to filing deadlines to run for reelection.
And at the end of a year where Congress has become an ever more toxic environment in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and Democrats have struggled to enact President Biden’s agenda with their razor-thin majorities, retirements can have a compounding effect on morale.
“Retirements have two distinct effects,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist and former top staffer at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“Some retirements may be downers for the members because it’s a member who they have gotten to know and work with and are sad to see leave. Some retirements are downers because people read them as making it harder for us to retain the majority.”
The pace of Democrats’ retirements this year is currently on par with Republicans in 2018. At the time, the GOP similarly faced historical midterm election headwinds and went on to lose the House majority in a referendum of Donald Trump’s presidency.
So far, 23 House Democrats aren’t running for reelection next year.
By comparison, 25 House Republicans had announced by the end of 2017 that they weren’t running for reelection, according to a tally kept by The New York Times.
Nine more House Republicans joined them by the end of January 2018. That included five in competitive districts, further compounding the challenge for the GOP to keep control of the House by having to defend more open seats.
In the current cycle, only 13 Republicans have decided against running for reelection. The figure includes eight who are running for other offices and two who decided to resign early to take other jobs outside of public service.
Just as Democrats were favored to win the House in 2018, Republicans are on even easier footing this election cycle since they only need to flip five seats to clinch the majority. In 2018, Democrats needed to flip 23 seats to gain the House majority.
Republicans are hailing the string of recent Democratic retirements as another sign that they’re well-positioned to win back the House.
“House Democrats’ nightmare before Christmas just keeps getting worse. Nobody wants to run as a Democrat because they know voters are rejecting their push for defunding police, higher taxes, and open borders,” said Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The 2022 midterm cycle is further complicated by once-a-decade redistricting, which is playing a role in several Democrats’ decisions not to seek reelection.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), for example, cited a “racially gerrymandered” map drawn by his state’s GOP-led legislature as a factor in his decision not to run for reelection after 18 years in Congress.
But on the flip side, the new lines created for DeFazio’s district to make it more safely Democratic paved the way for his retirement.
DeFazio, who won reelection last year by just five points, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that “I would have felt more obligation to run again” if his district had remained competitive after redistricting.
In a silver lining for Democrats, so far only a handful of the lawmakers opting not to seek reelection to the House hail from competitive districts that could be harder to defend without a well-known incumbent.
Only two of the seven Democrats who won districts carried by Trump last year, Reps. Cheri Bustos (Ill.) and Ron Kind (Wis.), have opted not to run for reelection. And three other Democrats who represent districts that Biden carried by less than 5 points are now running for other offices: Reps. Tim Ryan (Ohio) and Conor Lamb (Pa.) for Senate plus Charlie Crist (Fla.) for governor.
“In particularly bad midterm cycles, retirements pile up and they pile up from districts that Democrats will have trouble holding,” Ferguson said. “That’s not the case this year. Most — there are some exceptions — but most of the retirements so far have come from seats that will remain in Democratic hands after the midterms.”
But some of the House Democrats heading for the exits are among the most influential in the caucus. DeFazio and House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who have served a combined 48 years in Congress, are both calling it quits after playing key roles this year in the infrastructure bill and social spending package, as is Murphy, a key leader of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition.
In her retirement announcement, Murphy, who serves on the select committee investigating Jan. 6, warned her colleagues against continuing to engage in “name calling” and “saber rattling” in a year when two Republicans have been kicked off committees for invoking messages of violence.
“At a time when our politics have become so divisive and dangerous, my greatest hope for my colleagues is that they do the same. To stop the name calling, saber rattling, and the disinformation and to listen to one another. Be ideological in the fight, but pragmatic in the end,” Murphy said.