Democrats hit 30-year high for House retirements
The number of House Democrats not seeking reelection this year has hit a 30-year high — a bleak benchmark reflecting frustrations with the gridlock on Capitol Hill, the toxicity of relations between the parties and the challenges facing Democrats as they fight to keep their slim majority in the lower chamber.
Rep. Kathleen Rice’s (D-N.Y.) announcement this week that she won’t run again made her the 30th House Democrat to call it quits. That’s the most for the party since 1992, when 41 House Democrats decided to retire even as voters were sending their presidential nominee, Bill Clinton, to the White House.
It marks just the third time since 1978 that either party has seen at least 30 retirements in a single cycle, according to figures tallied by the non-partisan Brookings Institution. The last instance was just four years ago, in the 2018 midterms, when 34 House Republicans made for the exits. It was a grim sign of things to come: The GOP went on to lose 41 seats — and the House majority — in a Democratic wave widely viewed as a referendum on then-President Trump.
This year, it’s President Biden’s Democrats who face the difficult terrain. Between Biden’s sagging approval ratings, a stalled policy agenda in Congress, nationwide redistricting and the historical trend that the incumbent president’s party tends to lose seats in midterm elections, the odds of winning the House are increasingly in the Republicans’ favor.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political handicapper at the University of Virginia, cited “a collision of important circumstances” creating fierce headwinds for Democrats, not least the redistricting process that, like a game of musical chairs, has left some lawmakers without their old districts — and pushed them into retirement.
“There are a lot of signs that this is not going to be a good year for Democrats,” Kondik said.
Adding to the Democrats’ woes, the number of retirement announcements will likely continue to grow in the coming weeks as lawmakers get closer to their states’ candidate filing deadlines, many of which are in the spring.
Kondik noted that several states have still not finalized their new district lines, and many primaries are later this year than they’ve historically been, with only one state (Texas) scheduling its primary contests before May. The combination, he said, is that there are “probably” more retirements to come.
In contrast to Democrats, just 13 incumbent House Republicans aren’t seeking reelection, while two others have resigned in recent months to take jobs in the private sector. Most of those seats are safely Republican. And The Cook Political Report, another election analyzer, has identified 39 Democratic seats as vulnerable heading into the midterms, versus 19 for the GOP.
“The 2022 elections are coming up quick, and Democrats need to decide now whether they want to retire or stick around and get fired,” said Calvin Moore, a spokesman for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership.
Despite the challenges, Democratic leaders are putting on their best face, at least publicly, arguing that their legislative track record under Biden — including a massive COVID-19 relief package and another $1 trillion for infrastructure projects — will bring voters to their side in November.
“These are real results for the American people and a record that we’ll be proud to play against the other side’s absence of a plan,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.), head of the Democrats’ campaign arm, told reporters last week.
Maloney also welcomed the redistricting results, saying that, nationwide, the new lines do not favor Republicans to the extent that many Democrats had feared heading into the process. In New York, for instance, state legislators have created new maps that put Democrats in a good position to flip three House seats currently held by Republicans — a shift that would offset similar gerrymandering efforts orchestrated by GOP-led state legislators around the country.
“The fact is that we are going to have a map … we believe is fair,” Maloney said.
Still, recent polls indicate that an overwhelming percentage of Americans are unsatisfied with the direction the country is headed. The sour mood — fueled by soaring inflation rates and national fatigue over the COVID-19 pandemic — has tanked Biden’s approval rating, which stands at just 41 percent. Among modern presidents, only Trump was more unpopular a year into his tenure.
Republicans have pounced, pointing to the higher number of Democrats retiring as a sign that they’re poised to flip at least the minimum of five seats necessary to win back control of the House after just four years in the minority.
“Thirty House Democrats have called it quits because they know their majority is doomed,” said Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Eight of the 30 House Democrats who aren’t seeking reelection are running for other offices, including for Senate, governor, state attorney general and, in the case of Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Los Angeles mayor.
Several have specifically cited once-a-decade redistricting that made their districts much less favorable for a Democrat to win. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), for example, acknowledged that “there’s no way, at least for me in this election cycle” after his state’s legislature split his home city of Nashville into three districts.
Others have expressed a desire to move on from Congress or spend more time with loved ones back home instead of making the weekly trek to the Capitol, which has become a scorched-earth environment, with Republicans and Democrats constantly at each other’s throats over the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and the COVID-19 pandemic.
A number of the Democrats calling it quits are hardly at a traditional retirement age, in contrast to some of their colleagues whose congressional careers have lasted decades.
“I have always believed that holding political office is neither destiny nor a right. As elected officials, we must give all we have and then know when it is time to allow others to serve,” Rice, 57, said in her announcement this week.
The number of lawmaker retirements on each side of the aisle has frequently been correlated with the party that wins the House majority.
In 1994, the first midterm of Clinton’s presidency when Republicans seized the chamber after decades in the minority, Democrats saw 28 retirements versus 20 for the GOP, according to the Brookings figures.
In 2006, when Democrats reclaimed the chamber, 17 Republicans retired compared to nine Democrats.
There isn’t always a huge gap in the number of retirements to predict a wave election. In 2010, 17 Democrats retired in a year when they lost a whopping 63 seats — and House control. A comparable 15 Republicans retired that same cycle.
But some past retirement trends have only been correlated with a loss of seats without being a predictor of who wins control of the chamber. In 1992, for example, nearly twice as many House Democrats retired as Republicans. And while Democrats lost seats, they still held on to their majority with Clinton at the top of the ballot.
But that, the experts say, was the exception, not the rule. And any party would prefer to minimize the number of retirements, even in the best of years.
“Incumbency is not as electorally valuable as it used to be, but a party still would rather have an incumbent running, generally speaking, than not,” Kondik said. “Open seats are still easier for the opposition party to flip than incumbent-held seats.”