Who will control Congress? House departures set up uncertain future for chamber's balance

  • In Politics
  • 2022-01-14 10:01:52Z

WASHINGTON - After a bitter and eventful year on Capitol Hill, nearly forty members of the House of Representatives have announced their retirement from the chamber in 2023.

The departures set up a potential sea change on Capitol Hill. The partisan tilt of the retirements, with 26 Democrats leaving office versus 13 Republicans, has fueled debate among lawmakers and analysts over the governing party's prospects for holding onto power in the 2022 midterm elections.

"There's no doubt (that retirements are) making it more difficult for Democrats to hold onto the majority for next year. It's become a bigger threat to the majority than redistricting," said Dave Wasserman, an elections analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

While many Democratic retirements are in districts unlikely to flip parties this year, the vacating of competitive seats - like Reps. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., and Ron Kind, D-Wis. - may spell trouble for the incumbent party, which would otherwise depend on known local personalities to buoy it through tough election cycles.

"These are Democrats who have what I would consider value above replacement," Wasserman said, continuing that candidates like Bustos, Kind and Murphy "have unique personal appeal in their districts that's hard for their Democratic successors to try and replicate."

Last week, Reps. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., and Bobby Rush, D-Ill., also announced they'd retire from their seats in Detroit and Chicago, respectively. The vacancies have already sparked energetic primaries in the majority Black, Democratic-leaning districts.

"The Democratic retirements we're seeing are not a surprise. The silver lining is that most of them are in safe Democratic districts or not highly competitive ones," said Tim Hogan, a Democratic strategist.

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Why are so many in Congress retiring?

Lawmakers' rationales for retiring vary widely. The decennial congressional redistricting process, when states redraw the lines of state and federal districts for lawmakers, has imperiled some members.

Fear of a 2010-like blowout, when Democrats lost a net 63 seats, haunts the party. Retirements in competitive districts coupled with aggressive Republican gerrymandering in redistricting shocked the party in the early Obama years, a defeat party strategists are determined to avoid in November.

This year, Democrats' own aggressive gerrymanders in Illinois, Maryland and New York, coupled with fierce pushback on GOP gerrymandering and intervention from state courts, have blunted the worst-case scenario for the party.

"I don't think redistricting is as big a story for the 2022 election as several other factors," said David Polyansky, a Republican strategist at Axiom Strategies, a conservative political consulting firm. "That story is going to play out in full over a decade, not an election cycle."

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Low morale in the Democratic caucus has also led some lawmakers to contemplate retirement. Several Democrats told USA TODAY that the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and the ensuing threats from pro-Trump supporters have made them rethink whether they want to stay in Congress.

"I think a big question mark is how many more retirements will take place," said Matt Terrill, a Republican strategist with Firehouse Strategies, a conservative political consulting firm. While the GOP may enjoy some perceived momentum heading into the fall, Terrill said, "we're still a long ways out here" from the election.

Republicans point to the Democratic retirements, plus an energized conservative base, as evidence the GOP is likely to take back the lower chamber this year.

"The Democrats just keep stumbling on policies, politics, even basic messaging, and Republicans have done a fine job of just letting all that play out," said Polansky.

Polansky argued that Democrats have done a poor job of communicating their policies, like Biden's sweeping climate and social spending package, while the public remains concerned about the ongoing pandemic and the state of the economy, among other issues.

"For some reason, they focused on the importance of massive federal spending but never told people what they were buying. That's bad at ordinary moments. It's unthinkable in the middle of an economic crisis," Polansky said.

Safe blue open seats present challenges, opportunity

Yet the vacancies also present an opportunity for Democrats to refresh their roster of legislators at a time when the party's young, diverse base yearns for a new generation.

"There is an opportunity for the Democratic Party to help grow their bench in Congress by having competitive races in those seats," Hogan said, contending that seats being vacated by Bustos, Murphy and Kind were always going to be uphill climbs for the party.

"We were going to have to compete in them regardless, and they don't feel out of reach," Hogan, the Democratic strategist, said. "I think that's the important difference between what we saw in 2010 and what we're seeing in 2022."

"We're looking at a very, very narrow band of the House that's likely to be competitive, and it's highly dependent on the way district lines are drawn," Wasserman said. States that used a neutral redistricting process, like Arizona, California, Colorado and Michigan, host more competitive races than states like Illinois or Texas, where one party controlled the process, he continued.

Several states employ independent redistricting commissions that draw lines without the influence of elected officials with an interest in the outcome, like governors and the state legislature.

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"You can't say definitively that redistricting is going to have a net positive effect for Democrats, but those 2010 maps were so horrific that I think we've made progress in 2022," Hogan said, referencing the Republican gerrymanders in several states that often splintered the influence of urban voters.

Democrats found they were able to overcome many of those gerrymanders in the 2018 midterm elections when many suburbs supported the party.

Wasserman is confident that Republicans are favored to win the House, though much still hinges on how voters feel about key issues, like the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the economy and President Joe Biden, in November.

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Lawmakers move onto other offices, Trump reinforces hold on GOP

Among Republicans, 13 lawmakers will be leaving the House. Most of those retirements will be lawmakers seeking statewide office.

Of the 26 Democrats retiring from Congress, eight are seeking to become a mayor, senator or governor.

"Republicans' retirements are mostly from safe districts," Wasserman said, meaning that there is little opportunity for Democrats to benefit from the departures.

By contrast, several Democrats who are leaving Congress have launched campaigns for statewide office, including Reps. Conor Lamb, D-Penn., Tim Ryan, D-Ohio and Charlie Crist, D-Fla. Each occupies a district that will be heavily altered or eliminated in this year's redistricting.

The four remaining House Republicans, including Reps. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., and Anthony Gonzales, R-Ohio, are either imperiled by redistricting or face difficult reelection campaigns after their opposition to Trump. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind., said he will retire to honor a term limit pledge he set at the start of his tenure in Congress.

Political consultants and election analysts who spoke to USA TODAY agreed that the number of retirements this year is in line with an average midterm cycle.

While the number and composition of the retirements on both sides of the aisle present a clear trend, who ultimately controls Congress next year will come down to future retirements, public assessment of major issues and the nation's overall assessment of the Biden administration and Congress. There remain several months to go for each of those factors to crystalize.

"When there's so much working against the party that's in power, like right now, then the party that isn't in power, in spite of all their flaws, has tremendous opportunity," said Jean Card, a co-chair of RightNOW Women PAC, a conservative group that supports Republican female candidates.

"That doesn't mean we can't screw this up, obviously," Card cautioned. "I think both parties are in really bad shape."

Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.

Contributing: Ledyard King

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: House: Democratic retirements mean an uncertain future for the majority


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