House Democrats are retiring in numbers not seen in decades as a dire political outlook, new district lines and a negative environment at the US Capitol have combined into a toxic brew for lawmakers considering their political futures.
On Tuesday, New York Rep. Kathleen Rice became the 30th Democrat to announce plans to not seek re-election in 2022. By comparison, only 13 House Republicans are planning to call it quits or seek higher office.
“I entered public service 30 years ago and never left,” said Rice of her decision. “I have always believed that holding political office is neither a 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.”
The 30 House Democratic retirements are the most for the party since 1992, when a whopping 41(!) Democrats walked away from their seats. If one more House Democrat retires before the election, the 2022 cycle will tie the 1976 and 1978 election cycles as the second most retirements in modern history for the party, with 31. Democrats have already seen more retirements in this cycle than the last two elections combined.
Amy Walter, the editor of the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan campaign tip sheet, cites three main reasons for the Democratic exodus. First, she told me the national environment; “it’s bad out there for Democrats,” she said. Second, the weight of history; “they all know that it’s hard for party in White House to pick up seats. They can only afford to lose 5. They can do math.” And, finally the “environment” in the Capitol itself; “Talk to any member or staffer and they’ll tell you morale is low. It’s a combination of January 6th, a lack of civility, plus a frustration with a fact that most legislation is leadership driven instead of member driven.”
“I think it’s a direct result of the malaise on Capitol Hill,” said former New York Rep. Steve Israel, who previously ran the party’s House campaign committee. “Most Members decide to retire when they calculate that they might lose their next election. These days people are deciding to retire when they’re confident they will win.”
Regardless of the reasons, the reality is that this rate of Democratic retirements begins to feed on itself at some point. If you are a Democratic member on the fence about running again and see a number of your colleagues deciding to end their political careers, that has to impact your own thinking. The more retirements there are, the easier it is for any one member to walk away. And that sort of snowball effect is what we’ve seen in recent weeks, with Democratic retirements coming hot and heavy.
And we know from history that open seats — those without an incumbent running — are more likely to flip parties than seats where the incumbent is seeking re-election.
There is a solid — if not perfect — correlation between high retirement levels and House seat losses. In 1992, for example, Republicans netted 10 House seats in the general election, according to Brookings’ Vital Statistics on Congress. In 1978, the Republican gain was 15. In 1976, however, Democrats actually gained a seat despite the 31 retirements from within their ranks.
Democrats’ issues are compounded by the fact that Republicans have kept their own retirements very low. If no other House Republican walks away this year, the 13 calling it quits will be the party’s lowest total since 1988.
Add it up and you see LOTS of Democratic vulnerability and very little Republican danger.
According to the Cook Political Report’s rankings, there are 38 competitive Democratic-held seats compared to just 19 Republican-held seats. With the House Democratic majority so thin, that disparity in competitive seats is a very ominous omen for Democrats’ chances this fall.
The simple fact is this: Democrats see the writing on the wall. Many are opting to retire rather than either lose a reelection bid or become a member of the minority party in the House in January 2023. And that is causing a vicious cycle that further narrows Democrats’ chances this November.