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What All Those House Retirements Mean For Democrats So Far

On Aug. 12, the U.S. Census Bureau released detailed redistricting data that states will use to draw their congressional lines. These new maps are important because they will not only help determine which party has an advantage moving into the 2022 midterms, but also influence whether members of the U.S. House of Representatives seek reelection, run for another office or leave political life entirely.

Indeed, complications from redistricting may have influenced two Democratic House members in highly competitive seats to announce their exits recently, portending trouble for their party in next year’s midterm elections. Perhaps most notably, longtime Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind announced on Aug. 10 that he wouldn’t seek reelection. With Kind retiring, it will be challenging for Democrats to hold on to his rural, western Wisconsin seat, which is about 9 percentage points more Republican than the country as a whole, according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric.1 And in Pennsylvania, Rep. Conor Lamb, a relative newcomer, is leaving his Pittsburgh-area seat, which is 2 points more Republican than the country as a whole. This district could be a tough one for Democrats to retain, especially if redistricting makes his seat even more Republican. Lamb’s motivations are different from Kind’s, however: Lamb is running for retiring Republican Pat Toomey’s seat in the Senate.

Of course, House Democrats are sitting out reelection for numerous reasons, but it’s an important thing to track, as retirements and runs for other offices can hint at what members expect the midterm landscape to look like. Take the 2018 midterm cycle, when about two times as many House Republicans as Democrats decided to leave office ahead of that year’s “blue wave.” And while House Democrats are currently nowhere near the 39 Republicans who threw in the towel before the 2018 election, these departures are still an early warning for them, especially considering Democrats hold a narrow 222-to-213 seat majority,2 meaning Republicans need a net gain of just five seats to capture the chamber. The fact that Democrats may be in trouble shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, since the president’s party usually loses ground in midterm House elections.

Overall, 16 representatives have announced their departures,3 but in another ominous sign for Democrats, the type of seats the two parties are leaving open differs dramatically, as the table below shows. Seven of the eight outgoing Democrats represent districts that are less than 5 points more Democratic than the country as a whole — including the seats held by Kind and Lamb — which could make those seats easier for the GOP to flip next year. By comparison, only one Republican is leaving a seat that’s less than 10 points more Republican, meaning retirements and departures from office haven’t left the GOP as exposed.

16 House members are leaving office so far

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives retiring or seeking another office ahead of the 2022 election, as of 5 p.m. Eastern on Aug. 18, 2021

District Representative Party How they’re leaving… Partisan Lean
FL-10 Val Demings D Senate run D+20.8
TX-34 Filemón Vela D Retiring D+4.8
AZ-02 Ann Kirkpatrick D Retiring D+2.3
OH-13 Tim Ryan D Senate run D+0.3
FL-13 Charlie Crist D Governor run R+1.0
PA-17 Conor Lamb D Senate run R+2.3
IL-17 Cheri Bustos D Retiring R+4.7
WI-03 Ron Kind D Retiring R+8.7
NY-01 Lee Zeldin R Governor run R+9.6
NY-23 Tom Reed R Retiring R+15.2
GA-10 Jody Hice R Secretary of state run R+27.8
AL-05 Mo Brooks R Senate run R+32.4
NC-13 Ted Budd R Senate run R+38.2
MO-04 Vicky Hartzler R Senate run R+39.3
MO-07 Billy Long R Senate run R+47.7
TX-08 Kevin Brady R Retiring R+49.7

Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean based on the statewide popular vote in the last four state House elections.

Source: U.S. House of Representatives

Additionally, more Democrats (four) than Republicans (two) have announced they aren’t running for reelection or seeking another office — what we call “pure” retirements — and while it’s still early, a continuation of that trend would be another indication that Democrats are concerned about the midterm environment. Indeed, there’s been a tendency in midterm years for the president’s party to have more pure retirements than the out-of-office party. And at this point, the pure retirements for Republicans have more to do with scandal (in the case of New York Rep. Tom Reed, who faces allegations of sexual misconduct) or the loss of ranking member status due to GOP term limits on leadership posts (in the case of Texas Rep. Kevin Brady), and less to do with redistricting woes.


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As noted earlier — as well as back in May — concerns about redistricting have certainly played a role in many of the Democratic departures, such as those of Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and Texas Rep. Filemón Vela. And take again Democrats’ most recent departures, Kind and Lamb. Even though they don’t hail from states where the GOP alone controls redistricting (it’s split partisan control in both states), they too may be worried about redistricting. Each barely won reelection in 2020, and new district lines to fortify their chances of winning again aren’t a safe bet given that certain geographical realities make it unlikely that their seats get much bluer. For instance, Kind’s 3rd Congressional District in Wisconsin has swung sharply to the right in recent years, and three of the four districts it borders in the state are solidly GOP-leaning, so unless the district absorbs Democratic-leaning turf near the deep-blue city of Madison, new lines aren’t likely to make the R+9 seat significantly more Democratic. Meanwhile, it might not appear that Lamb is abandoning ship by running for Senate, but Pennsylvania as a whole is about R+3 and could end up being more Democratic than Lamb’s district after new lines are drawn. That’s because Pennsylvania will lose one district in reapportionment, so the remaining districts must add population, including Lamb’s 17th Congressional District, which is already R+2. That could necessitate adding population from GOP-leaning turf in nearby districts, and/or Lamb’s district could also lose some of its more Democratic-leaning areas to the Pittsburgh-based 18th Congressional District, too, which needs to add even more population than the 17th District does.

It’s hard to overstate the impact redistricting might have on Democrats deciding to leave the House. Overall, Republicans will draw lines for about 2.5 times as many seats as Democrats. Republicans will draw the lines in four of the eight Democratic open seats, and in six of the eight Republican open seats. This means that four Democratic representatives — Ryan and Vela as well as Florida’s Charlie Crist and Val Demings — won’t be defending seats next year in states where Republicans control redistricting. And outside of Demings, who has launched a Senate campaign to challenge Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the other three represent competitive districts that could become more GOP-leaning. (Only Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick’s Arizona seat will be drawn by a commission.) Conversely, Democrats will draw lines for only two of the GOP-held seats — those of New York Reps. Lee Zeldin and Reed — as well as retiring Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos’s district in Illinois. That could enable Democrats to pick up Zeldin’s district — Reed’s district is more likely to become a GOP vote sink — and also maybe protect Bustos’s seat, but they simply have fewer opportunities to redraw districts in their favor than the GOP.

Bottom line: At this point, the departure of members like Kind and Lamb makes it harder for Democrats to hold on to potentially competitive House seats, and the overall picture has worsened for Democrats as more of their vulnerable members exit the House. While these developments are not yet a death blow to Democrats’ chances of retaining their House majority, they do signal how tough it will be for Democrats to hold off Republicans next year. Redistricting, along with the classic penalty for the president’s party in midterm elections, could put Democrats in a pretty big hole.


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Footnotes

  1. Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean based on the statewide popular vote in the last four state House elections.

  2. This count includes three vacancies in seats that are safe for one party or the other — two formerly Democratic-held seats and one formerly Republican-held seat.

  3. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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