We’re still more than a year away from the 2022 midterms, but we’re already monitoring which incumbents in the House of Representatives plan to seek reelection next November. That’s because a disproportionate number of retirements from one party can signal doubts about its electoral chances, as it did in 2018, when about three times as many Republicans as Democrats retired ahead of that year’s “blue wave” election. And with President Biden now in office, Republicans should be at least somewhat favored to take back the House, so we’re watching especially whether House Democrats start abandoning ship.
It’s early yet, but so far there aren’t signs of a mass Democratic exit. As the table below shows, six Republicans have announced their retirements or intentions to run for another office, compared with five Democrats.1 Still, the bulk of state deadlines for incumbents to file their reelection bids in 2022 isn’t until at least March or April, so we’re a long way from knowing just how many open seats each party will be defending. Additionally, redistricting is delayed in many states given the pandemic; that further complicates things in that it could boost Republicans’ chances of retaking the House, as they will control line-drawing in two and a half times as many districts as Democrats.
|District||Representative||Party||Nature of departure||District’s 2020 presidential vote margin|
|FL-13||Charlie Crist||D||Running for governor||D+4.1|
|OH-13||Tim Ryan||D||Running for Senate||D+3.4|
|NY-01||Lee Zeldin||R||Running for governor||R+4.2|
|GA-10||Jody Hice||R||Running for secretary of state||R+20.4|
|AL-05||Mo Brooks||R||Running for Senate||R+27.0|
|NC-13||Ted Budd||R||Running for Senate||R+35.3|
At this point, the number of departures is about even by party, but one early takeaway is that Democrats have slightly more “pure” retirements — that is, retirements that don’t involve a run for another office. Democrats have only three such retirements compared with the GOP’s two, but historically the president’s party usually has more pure retirements than the opposition does in midterm years, as the electoral environment tends to be worse for the party in the White House. We’ll have to see how things develop in the months to come, but we expect more Democrats than Republicans to end up retiring in 2022.
Of the three Democrats who are retiring, their decisions to do so likely reflect potentially difficult reelection races, anticipated complications from redistricting, or both. Take Rep. Filemón Vela, whose heavily Hispanic district in South Texas hurtled to the right in 2020 — Biden carried it by only 4 percentage points, according to Daily Kos Elections. Vela’s seat has also been targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee, and as Republicans are in control of Texas’s redistricting process, the state’s 34th District could become somewhat less Democratic. Meanwhile, Rep. Cheri Bustos’s western Illinois district has also trended toward the GOP — former President Donald Trump carried it narrowly in 2016 and 2020 — so she may have feared a tough fight in 2022. And even though Democrats control redistricting in Illinois, making Bustos’s district notably bluer would have been challenging without removing many of her current constituents from the district — something no incumbents like because new voters don’t know them and could be open to backing a challenger in the primary or even the general election. Compared with Vela’s and Bustos’s districts, southeastern Arizona’s 2nd District, where Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick is the incumbent, is somewhat more Democratic-leaning, but it’s unclear just how the state’s independent commission will draw the new map. With a less Democratic seat, Kirkpatrick would likely have faced a tough reelection in the midterms. She’s also 71 years old and has been in and out of Congress since the 2008 election, so personal considerations likely influenced her choice, too.
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As for the two Democrats leaving Congress to seek higher office, Reps. Charlie Crist of Florida and Tim Ryan of Ohio, they are making uphill runs for governor and U.S. Senate, respectively. And while they might have what political scientists call “progressive ambition” — a desire to win and hold higher office — it’s also worth considering that Republicans control redistricting in both Florida and Ohio.
Crist, a former governor, claims redistricting didn’t influence his decision to seek his old job, but the current lines of his Tampa Bay-area seat were drawn because of court-ordered redistricting in 2015, which resulted in a more Democratic-leaning constituency. Now, however, GOP mapmakers in Tallahassee could shift the district back in the Republicans’ direction in this round of redistricting. For his part, Ryan has teased statewide runs for years,2 but it’s probably not a total coincidence that he finally took the plunge this cycle. Although the state’s 2011 Republican gerrymander packed Democrats into Ryan’s seat — then-President Barack Obama won 63 percent there in 2012 — blue-collar northeast Ohio has moved to the right so much since then that Biden carried the district with only 51 percent of the vote in 2020, so Ohio Republicans may try to draw even more GOP-leaning seats in that region.
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Fewer Republicans than Democrats have to worry about redistricting, but at least one outgoing GOP member probably factored in a potentially drastic change to his district: Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, who is running for governor despite the Empire State’s strong Democratic lean. Democrats have large enough majorities in the state legislature to override New York’s redistricting commission, so Zeldin’s Long Island-based seat could become more Democratic on a new map.
Still, there’s good news for the House GOP. Half of the Republicans leaving are in safe seats and seeking greener pastures. For instance, Reps. Mo Brooks of Alabama and Ted Budd of North Carolina are both running in open-seat races for Senate in straightforward attempts to gain higher office, and their deep red districts are likely to remain in Republican hands. By comparison, Rep. Jody Hice’s bid to become Georgia’s secretary of state is pretty unusual, as members of Congress don’t usually seek that office; however, his run comes in the wake of the 2020 election, in which he and other Republicans criticized Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for not helping Trump overturn Biden’s narrow lead in Georgia. So while the state’s new election law weakened the secretary of state’s role, Hice may be seeing this move as an opportunity to open doors to run for higher office later. Trump has already endorsed Hice against Raffensperger.
As for the other two Republican retirements, one is a matter of party rules. The House Republican caucus permits members to lead the party on a committee for only three consecutive terms,3 and this prompted Texas Rep. Kevin Brady to announce his retirement — he’s in the midst of his third full term as ranking member or chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. But Brady’s seat has a deep red hue and is near certain to stay in GOP hands. Meanwhile, scandal has gripped New York Rep. Tom Reed, who sounded like a potential gubernatorial candidate until evidence came to light of alleged sexual misconduct. After the story broke, Reed announced that he would not seek reelection or any other office in 2022. Still, his fairly Republican western New York seat may only get redder should Democrats attempt to pack more Republicans into it to make neighboring districts more Democratic.
Of course, at this point, these 11 departures are only the tip of the iceberg. On Tuesday, news broke that Democratic Rep. Val Demings of Florida will likely run for Senate — and she’s far from alone. Democrats such as Reps. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, Cindy Axne of Iowa and Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania are reportedly considering bids for higher office as well, which means they all may be leaving behind competitive seats for Democrats to defend — that is, if those districts remain intact after redistricting. Some House Republicans, such as Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona and Mike Turner in Ohio, are reportedly eyeing runs for higher office, too. Pure retirements are harder to predict, but regardless, we expect a few more before the 2022 midterm elections really heat up. And we’ll be busy watching how those retirements break down by party.