Midterm gloom grows for Democrats

Democrats are growing gloomier in their outlook for the midterms next year amid President Biden’s poor approval ratings, nagging economic issues and GOP advantages in the redistricting process. 

Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) announcement Monday that he will retire cast another spotlight on the growing uncertainty over whether Democrats will be able to keep control of the Senate and House. 

Leahy is 81, has served eight terms and said it was time for a new generation to represent Vermont.

“It is time to put down the gavel. It is time to pass the torch to the next Vermonter,” he said at a press conference at the Vermont State House. 

His seat also is unlikely to be a big GOP target given the Democratic leanings of Vermont. 

Yet it was easy to see how the prospect of losing the Senate majority in a chamber now split 50-50 between the parties could be a factor for a veteran senator to decide to hang it up.

There’s also the growing prospect that Republicans capture the House, which means the chances of Democrats passing new laws will fall dramatically. 

Leahy is far from the first Democrat to announce their retirement. 

Already three senior House Democrats who were expected to cruise to reelection next year, Reps. Mike Doyle (Pa.), David Price (N.C.) and John Yarmuth (Ky.), have announced they will not seek new terms. 

“It definitely seems like something changed in August,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, who pointed to Biden’s sharp drop in approval ratings after the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which he called “a catalyst” for the changing political environment.

Democrats’ loss in November’s gubernatorial contest in Virginia — and a near loss in New Jersey — have also dimmed Democratic moods.

“There are lots of other problems that have emerged this summer. COVID hasn’t gone away, inflation, gas prices. The public is just in kind of a surly mood and the results from two weeks ago were not good for Democrats,” Kondik added.

Kondik says no one can know for sure all the reasons why Leahy decided to step down at a time when 81 isn’t that old for holding office in Washington. But he said the move will be interpreted as waning confidence among Democrats about their ability to hold onto power.

“When senior members retire it’s sort of interpreted as a tacit acknowledgment of the environment,” he said. “There have been some senior Democrats in the House who have retired who also, like Leahy, probably would have easily won reelection had they run again.”

“It may be that these are senior members who were on the fence and were thinking, ‘Boy, it’s looking more and more possible that the Republicans could be in the majority in both the House and the Senate and do I really want to go back to serving in the minority?’ ” he added.

Democratic strategists acknowledge the political environment doesn’t look good at the moment but say there’s time to turn around Biden’s sagging poll numbers, which was a headwind for candidates in Virginia and New Jersey earlier this month.

Democrats did get some good news Monday, as lawmakers from both parties attended a signing ceremony for the bipartisan infrastructure bill that represents a significant win for Biden. 

“If you look at all the polling, we’re not in the best shape. Hopefully things are going to change before the midterms next year,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former senior Senate aide.

As recently as May, Leahy had seemed to be poised to run for a ninth term. Six months ago, he was asking his colleagues to support his reelection campaign if he decided to go ahead with one.

He held a fundraiser in May and raised $300,000 for his campaign account during the first quarter of the year.  

Marcelle Leahy began treatment for a chronic form of leukemia earlier this year, and that may have factored into her husband’s decision to leave Congress.

Some Democratic senators were surprised by Leahy’s news.

“I’m always surprised when anybody puts in their retirement, but I think his situation is such that he’s given a lot of wonderful years, and you know about his wife,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). 

Steven S. Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said it’s perfectly reasonable for a senator to decide to move on after serving more than 45 years in the Senate.

“Here’s a guy retiring more or less when he should, when he’s over 80, still reasonably healthy and has some other things he wants to do with his life,” he said. “I can’t help but think that that’s the primary consideration.”

But Smith noted that Leahy’s ability to hold onto his post as Senate president pro tempore, which comes with many perks including the second-largest security detail in Congress and extra office space in the Capitol, is uncertain.

“Whether he’s counting on the Senate to turn or not, I’m not sure,” he said. “The Senate, anyone would say, is up for grabs. Maybe a 50-50 proposition.”

Smith also said there’s a “better than 50-50 chance” that the House flips, which means that Democrats’ ability to pass landmark legislation after 2023 is at serious risk.

He said if Republicans are in the majority after 2022, “it would affect what legislative record the next Congress could develop and what role Leahy could have in that process.”

“And besides, being in Congress right now is more or less unpleasant. It’s just not the case that you can accomplish surprising things by working with the other side,” he added.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) put out a statement asserting that Republicans have no chance of picking up Leahy’s vacant seat next year.

“Vermont is a blue state that has not elected a Republican to statewide federal office in more than 20 years and Democrats look forward to winning this Senate seat in 2022,” DSCC Chairman Gary Peters (Mich.) said in a statement.

A senior GOP aide, however, said “it’s a sign of the times” and the favorable political environment for Republicans that the DSCC even had to put out a statement insisting that there’s no chance of Leahy’s seat flipping in what has been a reliably blue state. 

Tags David Price Gary Peters Joe Biden John Yarmuth Mazie Hirono Mike Doyle Patrick Leahy
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