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Retirements could tip control of the US House majority

A few more retirements can be expected after the holidays when lawmakers have had a chance to spend time with families and as filing deadlines near.
Retirements could tip control of the US House majority
Posted at 12:23 PM, Dec 30, 2023

A chaotic year for the House is coming to a close with more Democrats than Republicans deciding to leave the chamber, a disparity that could have major ramifications in next year's elections.

About two dozen Democrats have indicated they won’t seek reelection, with half running for another elected office. Meanwhile, only 14 Republicans have said they are not seeking another term, with three seeking elected office elsewhere.

More retirements can be expected after the holidays, when lawmakers have had a chance to spend time with families and make decisions ahead of reelection deadlines. But so far, the numbers don't indicate the dysfunction in the House is causing a mass exodus for either party.

"Members sort of knew that this is what the institution is currently like when they chose to run for office," said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The organization is a think tank that maintains a database of vital statistics on Congress, including retirements. 

"Some of them may well be feeling frustrated at this point in time, but anybody who has been elected to Congress in recent years, they're not surprised at what they're finding when they are getting to Washington."

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Republicans certainly had the most high-profile exits. Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., became only the third lawmaker to be expelled by colleagues since the Civil War. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was the first-ever speaker removed from that office by his colleagues. He opted to leave effective Dec. 31 rather than serve among the rank-and-file.

But it's the departure of a handful of Democrats in competitive districts that has Republicans thinking the overall retirement picture gives them an advantage in determining who will control the House after the 2024 elections.

Reps. Katie Porter of California, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia proved they could win toss-up congressional districts in good election cycles for Democrats and not-so-good cycles. They are all seeking higher office within their home states. Porter and Slotkin are running for the U.S. Senate. Spanberger is running for governor in 2025.

Democrats are also losing six-term Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan to retirement, leaving them with another competitive open seat to defend in a state that will be crucial in the presidential election. Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., is not seeking reelection due to health challenges in a district that leans Democratic but is more competitive than most.

On the other side of the aisle, the Republicans leaving office generally represent districts that Democrats have little chance of flipping. They'll be replaced by Republicans, predicted Rep. Richard Hudson, the chairman of the House Republican campaign arm.

"Retirements are a huge problem for the Democrats. They're not a problem for us," Hudson said.

The exception is Santos, who represented a competitive New York district. Democrats hope former Rep. Tom Suozzi can win back the seat, which he gave up when he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2022.

Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said he found it "a bit of a surprise" that the number of Democrats leaving office exceeded the Republican exits given all that has transpired this year.

"Politically, I think we’re very well positioned for 2024," Cole said. "I just think the margins are going to remain narrow no matter who wins. The number of competitive seats is so much lower than it was even a decade ago, the polarization is so much greater, that it’s hard to move big numbers. Whoever wins the presidency probably wins the House."

Sometimes, legislators in the states tip the scales in determining the makeup of Congress. It's one reason there are so few competitive races.

Three incumbent House Democrats from North Carolina have essentially been left with little opportunity to return after GOP lawmakers in the state drew new boundaries for their congressional districts. What were once competitive seats became near locks for whichever Republican emerges from the state's primary elections.

Democratic Rep. Jeff Jackson decided to run for attorney general rather than attempt to run again for a Charlotte-area seat that he had just won in the 2022 midterms. Rep. Wiley Nickel, a fellow freshman who flipped a toss-up district in the last election, also announced he would not be running, and would focus instead on a potential U.S. Senate bid in 2026. And Rep. Kathy Manning said she won't file for reelection under the current maps but would run if a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the new districts is successful.

Manning said the city of Greensboro in her district was split into three pieces and combined with rural counties. She won in 2022 by a margin of 9 percentage points, but she said the new district gives a 16-point advantage to a Republican candidate.

Democrats are hoping court-ordered redistricting in Alabama and Louisiana will favor their side and effectively make the redistricting battles a wash.

Ambition is also playing a role in the retirement trends. About half of the Democrats not seeking reelection to the House are seeking office elsewhere. That includes three members running for the seat once held by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who entered the Senate in 1992 and served more than three decades before her death in September. Slotkin is running for the seat Sen. Debbie Stabenow has held for more than two decades. Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota is running for president against fellow Democrat Joe Biden.

"If you are interested in a higher office, you're going to be sensitive to when those things come up. They don't always come up," Reynolds said.

Still, a few lawmakers do attribute their leaving, at least in part, to the dysfunction they've witnessed in Congress.

Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins of New York doesn't plan to wait for the election to get out. He's retiring sometime in February.

"We're spending more time doing less. And the American people aren't served," he said when announcing his retirement last month.

Republican Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., described a similar sense of frustration in his retirement announcement. He's been critical of Republican leaders for "lying to America" that the 2020 election was stolen and downplaying the Jan. 6 insurrection.

"Our nation is on a collision course with reality and a steadfast commitment to the truth," Buck said.

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