When candidate filing closed at 4:30 p.m. Central last Friday in Louisiana, we shut the book on the marathon phase one of the 2018 midterms: The deadline to run for federal office as a major-party candidate has officially passed in all 50 states. That means that — barring any last-minute withdrawals — we now have a final list of every member of Congress who is retiring this year. It’s a list that speaks to Republicans’ vulnerability in the midterm elections and includes many of the GOP’s most prominent anti-Trump voices, but it’s also one that doesn’t look too different from the Republican caucus as a whole.
Depending on how you count,1 39 Republicans and 18 Democrats are not running for re-election. That includes 13 Republicans and 10 Democrats who are leaving to seek another office, such as governor. Excluding them, 26 Republicans and eight Democrats are walking away from their political careers at the end of the 115th Congress. That’s the most “pure” retirements by Republicans — and the fewest by Democrats — since the 2008 election.
|Retiring||Seat Swing in Election|
In fact, the 26 pure Republican retirements represent the fifth-biggest exodus of any party in any election going back to 1974.2 Luckily for the GOP, there isn’t a particularly strong relationship between how a party performs in the general election and its number of pure retirements. Still, that’s not exactly a stat you’re thrilled with if you’re a Republican. Because incumbents enjoy an electoral bonus, each open seat makes it a little bit harder to hold a majority.
Who are those 26 Republicans? They include three U.S. senators and 23 members of the House of Representatives.3 Some are moderates; some are dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. Some vote in lockstep with President Trump; others regularly defy him. Some occupy safe seats; others may be retiring to avoid the embarrassment of being shown the door by voters.
|Member||Seat||Trump Score||DW-Nominate Score||Seat’s Partisan Lean|
|John J. Duncan Jr.||TN-02||78.6||0.601||R+38|
|Average (House retirements only)||92.1||0.484||R+15|
|Average of all other House Republicans||93.1||0.490||R+24|
When we first looked at patterns in pure Republican retirements in November 2017 — a time when only 13 Republicans had called it quits — retiring Republicans had noticeably lower Trump scores (our in-house measure of how often each member of Congress votes with the president) and DW-Nominate scores (a quantification of a politician’s ideology, where 1 is the most conservative and -1 is the most liberal) than their nonretiring Republican colleagues. But now, the pool of pure retirees looks a lot more representative of the GOP caucus as a whole. House Republicans4 who are retiring from politics have an average DW-Nominate score of 0.484; that’s little different from your average Republican in the rest of the lower chamber, who would score a 0.490. The mean Trump score of House retirees is 92.1 percent; the rest of the GOP caucus averages out to 93.1 percent. In sum, pure Republican retirees are still slightly more moderate and less supportive of Trump than their colleagues who are on the ballot in 2018, but the differences are pretty small — certainly not as sizable as they appeared to be back in November, when a narrative prematurely formed that Republicans were retiring because they were fed up with a toxic political environment.
Another theory of retirements from the fall holds up better. Pure retirements are indeed taking place in districts that, on average, are significantly more competitive than your normal GOP-held district. The average FiveThirtyEight partisan lean5 of the 23 House districts whose incumbents are throwing in the towel is R+15, or 15 percentage points more Republican-leaning than the country as a whole. The other 213 Republican-held districts average out to R+24. So there may still be something to the idea that many Republicans are finding retirement a more appealing option than a grueling re-election campaign. (The idea that politicians retire when they think they might lose also has some support in political science.)
Our November analysis also found that being a member of the Tuesday Group (a faction of moderate Republicans) or a term-limited committee or subcommittee chair was highly correlated with retiring from elected office. (Only one of the 13 pure Republican retirees at the time did not fit into one of those two categories.) That has also become less true as the list of retirees has filled out. The final tallies: Eight of the GOP’s 23 pure retirees from the House are members of the Tuesday Group, and nine of 23 are staring down the barrel of losing a powerful chairmanship in 2019. That helps explain why our effort in November to divine which Republicans would be next to retire — based largely on Tuesday Group membership and committee term limits — fell flat; we were correct on only two (and a half) out of 16 names.6 Instead, factors like scandal, age and the demands of the House speakership sent people who didn’t fit the pattern to the showers.
Of course, now that candidate filing is over, the question of what would drive Republicans to retire is mostly academic; there are no more tea leaves to read. But retirements are still important because they provide an early, partial answer to the question most people are waiting until Election Day to answer: Who will legislate on behalf of the Republican Party in 2019 and beyond? The answer isn’t pretty for the center-right. Four of the 13 most moderate Republican representatives (going by DW-Nominate) will not be returning to Congress next year — just because of retirements. At least six of the 15 most anti-Trump Republican House members (going by Trump scores) will be gone.7 And the Tuesday Group will lose at least 23 percent (10 of 44) of its publicly known members — far more if Democrats have a good election night. Just because Republicans are retiring across every wing of the party doesn’t mean a given wing won’t feel disproportionate effects.
Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2018 midterms.