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 PerlmutterEdwin (Ed) George PerlmutterThe Hill’s Morning Report – Biden to make voting rights play in Atlanta Johnson, Thune signal GOP’s rising confidence Rep. Perlmutter says he won’t seek reelection in November MORE (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 SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierDemocrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Members of Congress not running for reelection in 2022 Speier endorses California Democrat in race to replace her MORE (D-Calif.) or Karen BassKaren Ruth BassMembers of Congress not running for reelection in 2022 For Democrats it should be about votes, not megaphones Proposed California maps put incumbents in jeopardy MORE (D-Calif.) or Bobby RushBobby Lee RushChicago alderman announces bid for Rep. Bobby Rush’s seat Michigan Rep. Brenda Lawrence becomes latest House Democrat to retire Sen. Rob Portman announces positive COVID-19 test MORE (D-Ill.) or John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthDemocrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Democrats confront rising retirements as difficult year ends Members of Congress not running for reelection in 2022 MORE (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 paychec 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 frontline [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-House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanStopping the next insurrection Former Sen. Bob Dole dies at 98 No time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump MORE (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 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 Appropriates 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; Alan LowenthalAlan Stuart LowenthalButtigieg touts supply achievements at ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach California Assemblywoman launches congressional run, setting up contested primary Democrats confront rising retirements as difficult year ends MORE (D-Calif.) and Lucille Roybal-AllardLucille Roybal-AllardDemocrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit California Assemblywoman launches congressional run, setting up contested primary Democrats confront rising retirements as difficult year ends MORE (D-Calif.), both 80; and David PriceDavid Eugene PriceDemocrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Clay Aiken launches second bid for Congress Ukraine president, US lawmakers huddle amid tensions with Russia MORE (D-N.C.), 81.
But the departures include younger members who were once seen as rising stars. Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosOne year later: A lesson Democrats confront rising retirements as difficult year ends Members of Congress not running for reelection in 2022 MORE (D-Ill.), who headed the DCCC last cycle, is just 60. Rep. Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyFlorida Democrats call on DeSantis to accept federal help to expand COVID-19 testing Biden faces series of minefields in coming year Democrats confront rising retirements as difficult year ends MORE (D-Fla.), a top member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, is just 43. Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanCapitol security officials developing program to identify ‘insider threats’ from police Capitol Police intelligence official says leadership was warned of potential for violence days before Jan. 6 Eleven interesting races to watch in 2022 MORE (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 DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazioDemocrats confront rising retirements as difficult year ends Members of Congress not running for reelection in 2022 Airlines defend delays, cancellations amid scrutiny from Congress MORE (D-Ore.); Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who heads a Foreign Affairs subcommittee; and Rep. Mike DoyleMichael (Mike) F. DoyleHillicon Valley — Biden’s misinformation warning Lawmakers call on tech firms to take threat of suicide site seriously, limit its visibility Members of Congress not running for reelection in 2022 MORE (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 BradyKevin Patrick BradyMembers of Congress not running for reelection in 2022 Trump war with GOP seeps into midterms Nunes retirement move seen as sign of power shift in GOP MORE (R-Texas) and Tom ReedTom ReedIn their own words: Lawmakers, staffers remember Jan. 6 insurrection Members of Congress not running for reelection in 2022 GOP infighting just gets uglier MORE (R-N.Y.), both of whom are close to House Republican leadership. More tellingly for the GOP, also among the retirees are Reps. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerHouse GOP members introduce legislation targeting Russia over Ukraine McCarthy says he’ll strip Dems of committee slots if GOP wins House Big lies threaten the stability of the United States MORE (R-Ill.) and Anthony GonzalezAnthony GonzalezLessons learned from 1990s internet commerce regulation: First, do no harm GOP’s Rice says he regrets Jan. 6 vote against Biden’s election Members of Congress not running for reelection in 2022 MORE (R-Ohio), two of the ten Republicans who voted to impeach former President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMcConnell: Rounds ‘told the truth’ about 2020 election Abrams thanks Biden for Georgia speech, backs call for Senate rules change Kerik to sit for ‘voluntary interview’ with Jan. 6 panel, attorney says MORE 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 GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE to become House Speaker — or the ten 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.