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There Was A Lot Of Turnover In The House In The 2018 Cycle

There are going to be a lot of new faces in the 116th Congress when it kicks off on Jan. 3, 2019. But those new faces also mean that many old faces won’t be returning — 104 members of the House will certainly or probably not be sworn in again next year.1

Congressional members leave office for a whole host of reasons. For example, much was made of the numerous Republican retirements announced in the lead-up to the 2018 midterms, but in addition to those who opted to step away from political life, many other members left a seat because they ran for a higher office or because they resigned before their term ended, often after a scandal. In the past, some members have left because they were expelled from office, though that didn’t come into play this year.2 And nearly every Congress, including this one, loses some members who die while serving. So I’ve tried to track turnover in the House from 1974 to 2018 by counting the total number of members who exited the chamber for any reason, including losing a re-election bid, during that two-year term; I then divided that figure by the total number of members who held office during a given cycle to figure out what percentage of all representatives had changed over in that cycle.

Using this methodology, I found 104 members in the 2018 cycle who have already exited or who are on track to exit by the end of this congressional term. This is out of a total of 447 members who will have served at some point in the 115th Congress — some members left and were replaced before the end of the term, which means more than one person sometimes held the same seat. That’s why the total number of Representatives in this and every Congress I looked at is higher than the 435 total seats in the House. As you can see in the table below, the current Congress had the the third-highest turnover rate since at least 1974.

The House is expecting a whole bunch of newcomers

Turnover in House membership per two-year election cycle, since 1974

Cycle Total House Members Served Exiting House Members Turnover
1992 441 115 26.1%
2010 446 105 23.5
2018 447 104 23.3
1974 442 102 23.1
1994 442 93 21.0
2012 445 91 20.4
1982 444 89 20.0
1978 441 83 18.8
1980 442 80 18.1
1996 445 79 17.8
1976 441 73 16.6
2014 444 69 15.5
2008 448 67 15.0
2002 444 62 14.0
2006 440 60 13.6
2016 441 59 13.4
1990 445 55 12.4
1986 439 54 12.3
1998 444 49 11.0
1984 440 43 9.8
2000 440 43 9.8
2004 440 43 9.8
1988 441 39 8.8

Turnover includes all members who left the House, regardless of reason, during each two-year term of Congress. Reasons include retirement, resignation, seeking other office, death, expulsion and appointment to other office.

The 2018 total includes two people — Brenda Jones (D-MI) and Marty Nothstein (R-PA) — who won special elections to serve out expiring terms that will end this year but did not win elections to serve in the next Congress.

Sources: CQ, Roll Call, Congressional Biographical Directory, VoteView, State Election Websites, Historical Newspapers

How exactly did this election cycle end up being so tumultuous in the House? Well, it arguably started with the large number of retirements. Overall, I found 31 retirements where the incumbent announced he or she would not seek re-election (and also would not seek election to another office). That is a lot for one congressional term, trailing only the 1992 and 1996 presidential cycles, in which 52 and 34 members retired.

But it wasn’t just retirements fueling this year’s turnover. A sizable number of resignations also played a role in this cycle’s high turnover rate. In all, 15 people resigned — meaning they left before the end of their term — in the 2018 cycle, which was the largest number of resignations prior to the general election of any cycle I examined.3 Some representatives resigned to accept more prestigious positions, such as posts in President Trump’s administration, but others left office amid a scandal. Five GOP House members resigned to take appointments in the Trump Administration, including current Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and now-former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price. One Democrat, Rep. Xavier Becerra, also resigned to accept an appointment as California’s attorney general. But five other House members — four Republicans and one Democrat — left office because of scandal. And another four members resigned from office but not amid scandal, including Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis, who resigned in the midst of his bid for Florida governor.4

Of course, retirements and resignations aren’t the only reasons people are leaving the House in 2018. Many incumbents lost their re-election bids, too. Based on ABC’s projected winners and FiveThirtyEight’s live forecasts in the remaining contests, we count 29 incumbents — all Republicans — who lost or are on track to lose in 2018. Those losses made up 28 percent of total House turnover, which is far lower than in the 2010 cycle, a Republican wave year, when 51 percent of turnover was from re-election losses. That said, zero Democratic incumbents lost re-election in the House this year, which can’t be said of 2010. The last midterm where the non-presidential party did not have a single incumbent loss in the House was in 2006, and Democrats took the House then, too. To be clear, this trend did not extend to the Senate, where at least three Democratic incumbents lost and a fourth — Florida Sen. Bill Nelson — is headed to a recount in which he trails his opponent.

A few House members also left to seek a higher office, failed to win their renomination bid or, in one case, died in office. Twenty-two House members sought election to other offices, not counting DeSantis, who technically resigned his seat. And another four members lost their primaries — most famously Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley, who fell to challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

We also have a bit of an odd situation where two members who haven’t even been sworn in are already doomed to leave the House in 2018. Both Democrat Brenda Jones and Republican Marty Nothstein appear to have won special elections to serve out the remainders of congressional terms previously held by Democratic Rep. John Conyers (Michigan 13th) and Republican Rep. Charlie Dent (the pre-redistricting Pennsylvania 15th). Nothstein only leads by 58 votes in his special election, so it’s still possible that he will not be elected at all, but assuming he holds on to win, it is unclear if either Nothstein or Jones will actually take their seats in Congress for the next two months because they may have to give up their local office positions to do so.5

What this turnover will bring to the next Congress remains to be seen. But with Democrats taking control of the House and Republicans hanging on to the Senate, divided government is back in Washington. With nearly a quarter of the House’s members leaving after one of the most turbulent election cycles in recent years, you can expect some new party alliances and disputes come January.

Footnotes

  1. This count includes seven incumbents in uncalled House races where FiveThirtyEight projects a likely winner and two special election winners who were elected to serve out the remainder of the current congressional term but won’t return to office in January.

  2. The most recent expulsion occurred when the House kicked out Democratic Rep. James Traficant in July 2002.

  3. Outgoing members sometimes resign following the November election, but they are not included in this figure as their fate has already been decided in some way (typically they retired or lost re-election).

  4. The Florida governor election is undergoing a recount, but as of 7 p.m. Monday, DeSantis has a 0.4 point lead over his opponent, Andrew Gillum.

  5. Jones lost to Rashida Tlaib in the Democratic primary in the regular election for Conyers’s seat, and Tlaib went on to win a seat in the next Congress. Tlaib did not run in the special election primary while Jones did, and in that race Jones won the Democratic nomination and then the special election. As a result, Jones is now supposed to serve the remaining two months of Conyers’s term. Thanks to the complications of a newly drawn map in Pennsylvania, Nothstein lost the general election in the new Pennsylvania 7th to Democrat Susan Wild, but he narrowly leads the special election to finish off Dent’s term in the old (and soon to be nonexistent) Pennsylvania 15th.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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