WASHINGTON – House Democrats have fended off a series of retirement announcements by veteran lawmakers the past few months, deflecting questions about whether these departures are a sign that members think the party is about to lose the majority in next year’s midterm elections.
The latest example unfolded after Tuesday’s decision by Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., to retire at the end of 2022 rather than seek reelection, ending a 16-year run representing the Louisville region and giving up the chairman’s gavel of the House Budget Committee.
Yarmuth faced repeated questions about whether he saw the political writing on the wall and wanted to get out on his own terms rather than returning to life in the minority.
“Believe me, it has nothing to do with it,” Yarmuth told reporters Tuesday in the Capitol.
The 73-year-old can point to his own personal reasons – Yarmuth appears to be trying to set up his son to run for the seat – and a broader review shows that there is no major jail break among Democrats heading for the exits out of line with previous election cycles.
But everyone knows that more retirements are coming, and with Democrats holding a majority of just three seats for now, they can ill afford too many open seats in even remotely competitive races.
One hope is, with states drawing up new district lines for all 435 seats, that Republicans will join them in declining to run for reelection amid a hyperpartisan climate that can infuriate everyone.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you get more announced retirements or doing something else,” said Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who expects some to run for other office. “I’d be surprised if it was all on one side. Look around this environment. I have as many Republican friends as disgusted with what’s going on in Congress these days.”
Kind’s decision to retire, announced Aug. 10, delivered a gut punch in Democratic circles because his western Wisconsin district has tilted rightward in recent years, favoring Donald Trump in each of the last two presidential elections. Many fear that without the familiar Kind on the ballot, Republicans could pick up a relatively easy victory there on a march toward the majority.
But his retirement announcement did not turn into a flood of other similar decisions, as only Yarmuth has since also decided against reelection. His district is safe for Democrats unless Republicans in Kentucky carve it up through redistricting.
Indeed, just 10 Democrats have so far decided not to run for reelection to their House seat, while nine Republicans have decided against reelection and another resigned. This is a slower pace than what the GOP faced recently.
By late October 2019, 18 House Republicans had announced they would not run for reelection, and by late October 2017, 15 Republicans had announced they were not going to run for reelection or for other office.
For now, though, Democratic retirements pose a slightly bigger problem because up to eight of those seats could be politically vulnerable next year, depending on how legislators draw district lines, while only a couple of the GOP vacancies so far are potential gains for Democrats.
The holiday season, from Thanksgiving through Christmas and into the new year, serves traditionally as a gut-check moment for lawmakers.
From 2011 through 2020, the final two months of the off year and January of the election year have prompted the most retirement announcements for members of the House, according to data compiled by Ballotpedia.
So, strategists at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee are keeping their eyes focused on a few dozen lawmakers to see what they do.
Back in 2009, the last period when Democrats controlled both majorities and the White House, their party managed to avoid an early rush of House members announcing they wouldn’t run for reelection.
Then, starting in late November through the middle of December, four veteran Democrats announced they would not run the following year, including John Tanner, an 11-term Democrat who founded the Blue Dog Coalition of centrist Democrats.
All four of those seats flipped to Republicans, with Tanner’s west Tennessee seat turning into a deeply safe district for the most conservative lawmakers. All told, Democrats suffered a net loss of 63 seats in 2010, leaving them in the minority the following eight years.
For Republicans, in late 2017 a flood of retirement announcements followed a summer of political discontent with their failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, with eventually 34 GOP members deciding not to stand for reelection – and Democrats gained 40 seats and the majority.
No one is predicting such a big defeat for Democrats next year, as the Trump presidency forced a political sorting of so many congressional districts. Many strategists think that neither party will push much above 235 seats for years to come: Democrats currently hold 220 seats, with two more that are vacant and very likely to be in their fold after special elections next month, while Republicans hold 212 seats and have another likely to be claimed next month.
But there’s a similar vibe to this fall’s legislative slog to try to pass President Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar agenda of traditional infrastructure projects and a burst of new social safety net programs, akin to the months-long journey of trying to pass the ACA in 2009 and 2010.
“This is what legislating looks like. It’s not pretty – there’s 24/7 news coverage. People see it day in and day out, and they get frustrated,” Kind said.
In November 2009, Republicans easily won gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, and shortly thereafter House Democrats approved their first draft of the ACA.
That legislation contained proposals that were considered popular, such as protections for patients with preexisting conditions, but the overall health proposal did not gain broad acceptance until years later.
Now, Biden is pushing a package that includes very popular proposals individually, such as dental, vision and hearing benefits for the elderly through Medicare, but polls show that the public has little understanding of what the entire “Build Back Better” agenda entails.
The Democratic retirements started after those gubernatorial losses and the first passage of the ACA, accelerating in January after a little-known Republican, Scott Brown, pulled off a huge upset and won a special election to fill the Senate seat of the late Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Democrats fear that next month’s governor’s race in Virginia, which has trended toward Democrats the past 15 years, could serve as a similar jolt if Republican Glenn Youngkin pulls off the upset.
Yarmuth has not given up on the House, as he is encouraging his son, Aaron Yarmuth, who owns a news organization, to consider running for his seat.
“It’s a natural thing for him to consider. He’s very political and he has a lot of good ideas,” he said.
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