WASHINGTON — House Democrats seemed to have gotten the message from Tuesday’s elections: The political winds are not blowing in their favor.
After months of delays and stalemates, House Democrats passed the $555 billion infrastructure bill within days, a measure political prognosticators told them could help reverse the tide of Republican success in elections.
But Republican Glenn Youngkin’s win in the Virginia governor’s race is likely to have made a lot more Democrats nervous about the ease with which they’ll be able to hold on to their seats.
And there is nervousness in some Democratic quarters that the warning will be heeded by some lawmakers in a different way: They’ll give up and retire instead of running for re-election.
Retirements in the House have become a hallmark of a party that is expecting to lose power. The logic is often the same: Why stick around and fight another re-election battle if your party won’t have any power come the next year?
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The number of House Democrats who have already decided to retire or run for another office has steadily been increasing, compounding the party’s woes for next year’s midterm elections.
“Every Democrat retirement expands the Republican battlefield and demoralizes House Democrats even further,” said Michael McAdams, the National Republican Congressional Committee communications director.
In October, House Democrats were dealt a big blow when fixtures of the party announced their retirement, including Rep. David Price of North Carolina and Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, who have a combined six decades of experience.
Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the chair of the House Budget Committee, said in his retirement announcement he’ll be turning 75 at the end of his term and wants “to have more control of my time in the years I have left.”
Other notable Democratic retirements include Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona; Cheri Bustos of Illinois; and Ron Kind of Wisconsin.
So far, roughly a dozen House Democrats have announced retirements or plans to run for a different office. But neither party expects that to be the end of the list.
The redistricting process that is underway in all 50 states is likely to motivate even more lawmakers to call it quits instead of running for re-election.
The GOP controls more state legislatures than Democrats, so it has the power to redraw 187 districts to Democrats’ 75. And some heavily Democratic states, like California, use independent commissions, making it harder for the party to gerrymander maps in its favor.
Just one day after Youngkin’s win in Virginia, the NRCC announced it had added 13 more Democrats to its targeted list of vulnerable Democrats.
“In a cycle like this, no Democrat is safe,” said NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer in a news release. “Voters are rejecting Democrat policies that have caused massive price increases, opened our borders, and spurred a nationwide crime wave.”
Among the House Democratic lawmakers NRCC added to the list are Reps. Darren Soto of Florida; Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania; and Jennifer Wexton of Virginia.
Eddie Vale, a partner at New Paradigm Strategy group and a veteran of Democratic and progressive political and legislative campaigns, isn’t panicking just yet.
“Take a deep breath, and pull back to the bigger picture right now,” Vale said. “I’m not saying everything is puppy dogs and roses, but in the big picture and context of things, there aren’t these really huge retirement waves or everybody in competitive seats running for the hills that are a specific reason to panic about.”
House Democrats are betting that voters will reward them for advancing President Joe Biden’s generally popular agenda, which involves showering infrastructure money on virtually every district in the country and sending checks directly to millions of parents. The infrastructure piece was given final approval Friday.
But there remains a national political sentiment that must be overcome.
A recent national NBC News poll found a majority of Americans now disapprove of Biden’s job performance, while half give him low marks for competence and uniting the country, which could be a factor in the mounting retirements.
“When a president is deeply unpopular, their party tends to sustain heavy losses in the midterm elections,” McAdams said. “Smart Democrats are fleeing the House because they see Joe Biden’s approval ratings dropping like a lead balloon.”
As a means of comparison, in 2018, 37 Republicans declined to seek re-election, versus just 18 Democrats that year, according to political tracking website Ballotpedia.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee isn’t sounding the alarm yet, but instead it touted Democrats’ accomplishments in a statement, saying they “head into the on-year with record-breaking fundraising numbers, earlier than ever organizing investments, an agenda that’s wildly popular, and a record of accomplishment when it comes to rebooting the economy.”
While House Republicans, on the other hand, have spent the last year “campaigning on junk science and promoting ‘The Big Lie’ which led to the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol,” said DCCC spokesperson Chris Taylor.