WASHINGTON — House Democrats who decided to retire rather than run for reelection say they don’t regret their decisions even though there’s a chance their party won’t get shellacked in November’s midterm election.
“It’s time for me to retire and go back to practicing law and make some money,” retiring Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) told HuffPost. “We’ve got a really strong bench in Colorado, and you got to let the bench rise sometimes.”
Democratic leaders brushed off questions about the retirements, saying they had a strong field of candidates.
“We’ve got our team in place. It’s a great team, very confident, very able,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told HuffPost. “I think we’re going to win this cycle, contrary to what the pundits thought.”
But polls and political prognosticators say it’s clear the high number of retirements, many from longtime officeholders who did not want to bother with tough reelection bids they seemed destined to lose, is a key part of the reason the Democratic Party’s path to hold the House remains incredibly narrow.
The president’s party typically performs poorly in the midterm elections during the president’s second year in office, and polls have suggested for most of this year that Democrats would get trounced. That undoubtedly played a part in the decisions of longtime members like Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) and Perlmutter to retire. Democrats now face at least somewhat competitive races in all of their districts.
Falling gasoline prices and the Supreme Court’s decision undoing federal abortion rights, however, have resulted in more favorable polling for Democrats in recent weeks — but no lawmaker has tried to un-retire like NFL quarterback Tom Brady.
“Once they’ve decided that it’s time for them to leave, it’s too late to reconsider, even if you thought they ought to reconsider,” Hoyer said.
Thirty-seven House Democrats have announced they won’t seek another House term, the most of any election cycle since 1996. Of those, 10 are running for another office. Three Democrats took jobs in the Biden administration, one resigned to become lieutenant governor of New York, and another quit for a lobbying job.
Some of those departures will have essentially no impact on the control of the House. Democrats are unlikely to lose the seat of Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who is running for mayor of Los Angeles, for example. But of the 32 Democrat-held seats rated as toss-up or leaning toward Republicans by the Cook Political Report, 13 were vacated by retiring Democrats.
Perhaps the most notable example is Kind’s seat, which covers much of rural southwestern and western Wisconsin. It was already a swing district, and the state’s GOP legislature made it even more Republican-leaning after redistricting.
An August poll from the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is controlled by allies of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, found that Democratic State Sen. Brad Pfaff earned just 38% of voters’ support compared to 51% for Republican Derrick Van Orden, whom Kind had narrowly defeated in 2020.
Other retirements that could lead to tough races for Democrats include the retirement of Langevin, whose Rhode Island district is full of working-class voters and has drawn a high-profile GOP candidate in former Cranston Mayor Allen Fung. Bustos’ seat is now considered a toss-up. Democrats do feel increasingly confident about holding on to the seat of Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) along the Beaver State’s southern coast.
Democratic strategists acknowledge retirements make life more difficult. Beyond losing a candidate with years or even decades of ties to a community and built-up name identification, incumbents typically have substantial war chests to use in campaigns. Kind, for instance, has over $1 million in his campaign account compared to roughly $180,000 for Pfaff.
In some places, that cash gap means outside Democratic groups, including the DCCC and House Majority PAC — a super PAC controlled by allies of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — have to spend additional cash in these districts instead of helping elsewhere.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairman of the DCCC, said it’s common for more members to retire in a year like 2022 after state governments have redrawn district boundaries. But he suggested that maybe there were too many retirements.
“To the extent it was based on assumptions about what’s going to happen, obviously, you know, you never know until the voters speak,” Maloney said. “And right now, obviously, we’re very encouraged about the strong reaction to losing 50 years of reproductive freedom and holding the MAGA movement accountable.”
One retirement has already worked out for Democrats: After Antonio Delgado, who represented a seat covering the Catskills and parts of the Hudson Valley, left the House to become lieutenant governor of New York, the party won the special election to replace him. Rep. Pat Ryan (D-N.Y.), who focused his campaign on abortion rights, is now favored to win reelection in a slightly different district in November.
A handful of GOP retirements have aided Democrats. Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), one of a handful of Democrats to vote to impeach former President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, saw his seat centered around Syracuse get significantly more Democratic after redistricting. After his retirement, Cook Political Report considers his race a toss-up.
Whichever party wins a majority of House seats wins almost total control of the House, and members say life on the minority side can be miserable since the majority runs the entire legislative process, from committee hearings to deciding which bills go on the House floor.
Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), who is 82, said it was his time to go no matter what.
“You know, you don’t do this forever,” Price said. “ I wouldn’t deny it’s hard to leave. But I do think I made the right decision. And it was really not primarily a matter of calculating the climate in my district.”
Langevin said he wanted a better work-life balance and less travel. Lawmakers typically fly home to their districts every weekend.
“I’ve been driving my body pretty hard for the last 22 years and getting on an airplane, traveling as much as that is not as easy as it once was,” said Langevin, who is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair. He said he loved his work and called his 21-year career an honor.
“Leaving this place, you do it with mixed emotions; no one just leaves and is thrilled about it.”