Congressional Retirements Are Mounting. What Do They Mean?
With wars raging in the Europe and the Middle East and the U.S. government about to encounter (yet another) shutdown deadline, you may have missed the 2024 election bombshell that dropped last Thursday: Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, will not run for another term in the upper chamber of Congress.
A vocal critic of the president on government spending and inflation, Sen. Manchin had, of course, been a thorn in the side of Democratic leaders and the White House. It is not a stretch to say he will not be missed by some lawmakers in his own party. Or is it?
With Democrats holding onto the narrowest of leads in the Senate, Sen. Machin’s impending retirement puts the party in a difficult spot.
Sen. Manchin is not the only lawmaker who has announced he will not be returning to Congress, however. This week, the Allon Update looks at retirements from Congress and how they might affect the outcome of next year’s House and Senate elections. But, first, let’s look at what history might tell us about what could happen in congressional races.
How Much Does Congressional Party Power Shift In Presidential Election Years?
While the president’s party typically loses seats in midterm election years — years where the president is not on the ballot — it has fared relatively well in years in which the president is at the top of the ticket … as long as that president wins reelection (or his party’s successor does).
There have been 25 presidential elections since 1920. According to Ballotpedia, in only five of those races has the winning presidential candidate’s party lost U.S. House seats. One of those examples is from just four years ago. In 2020, now-President Joe Biden (D) defeated incumbent President Donald Trump (R) in the presidential election. That year, Democrats maintained a majority in the U.S. House, but lost 13 seats to Republicans. In 2016, Republicans captured the White House, but reduced their House majority by six seats. Another example of House losses despite a White House win was in 1960, when Democrat John F. Kennedy was elected president but his party lost 21 seats in the lower chamber of Congress.
Republicans do not have much wiggle room in 2024. If they lose a net five seats next year, the House majority will be back in Democrats’ hands.
The story is a bit different on the other side of the Capitol, but Senate power also closely tracks the outcome of the presidential race.
According to the Spokane, Wash. Spokesman-Review, in only five years since 1920 did the party that controlled the White House after a presidential election not also control power in the Senate. The most recent example was in 1996, when President Bill Clinton was reelected for a second term, but Republicans maintained their hold on Senate power. In 2000, Republicans lost four Senate seats — the most since the 17th amendment to the U.S. constitution allowed senators to be elected by popular vote — but maintained narrow control of the upper chamber of Congress since the vice president, at that time Republican Dick Cheney, casts the tie winning vote in that chamber.
The GOP’s 51-50 majority lasted only a few months, however. In late spring of 2000, Sen. Jim Jeffords switched his party affiliation from Republican to an Independent who caucused with the Democrats, giving control of the Senate to the Democrats.
Like House Republicans, Senate Democrats currently only enjoy a very narrow lead in the upper chamber of Congress. They can lose just one seat (if Republicans win control of the White House) or two seats (if Democrats hold the presidency) in order to maintain their lock on the Senate majority.
Which brings us back to Sen. Joe Manchin …
A Look At Senate Retirements So Far
The reason Sen. Machin’s retirement is so significant is that, as a Democrat, he hails from a reliably Republican state. According to the elections website 270ToWin, the GOP has been getting more and more powerful in West Virginia since 2000. Its growing support was evident in the last two presidential elections. In 2016, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 42 percentage points. In 2020, he defeated Joe Biden by 39 percentage points even though Biden won the White House. Only one other state, Wyoming, voted for Trump over Biden by a wider margin.
Additionally, all three U.S. House seats from West Virginia are held by the GOP, and the state is led by a Republican governor. Republicans also control the state legislature. In the state senate, in fact, there are only three Democrats. (There are 31 Republicans, meanwhile.) The margin is not any less lopsided in the state House of Delegates. In that chamber, there are only 10 Democrats and 88 Republicans.
The state has been slightly more hospitable to U.S. Senate candidates. A Democrat held current Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s (R) seat before she was elected to it. Democrats also held the governor’s mansion from 2000 to 2016.
Based solely on those numbers, and because incumbent West Virginia Governor Jim Justice (R) is running for Sen. Manchin’s seat, political prognosticator the Cook Political Report lists the West Virginia Senate seat as very likely to be picked up by Republicans. If the GOP picks up West Virginia and wins back the White House, that’s the ballgame: it will control the U.S. Senate.
Democrats are dealing with four other retirements as well: Sen. Laphonza Butler in California (who was appointed to fill the vacancy created by former Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s death), Sen. Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, Sen. Ben Cardin in Maryland, and Sen. Tom Carper in Delaware. Only Sen. Stabenow’s seat is listed as vulnerable by the Cook Political Report, however. The other three states are reliably left-leaning so Democrats are likely to hold onto those seats. The GOP has only one Senate retirement so far, Sen. Mitt Romney, but since Utah is a reliably Republican state, that seat should easily be held by that party.
The Cook Political Report lists six other Democratic seats that are vulnerable even though, at this point at least, it appears the incumbent will be on the ballot. Those states are Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. If Democrats lose any one of these seats, plus West Virginia, they lose control of the Senate no matter who wins the White House next year. To add insult to injury: the Cook Political Report does not have a single race where there is a Republican incumbent running named as a toss-up. At this point, it looks like the GOP will retain all the seats it currently occupies.
It’s a tough landscape for Democrats in the Senate, which is why no matter how they feel about Sen. Manchin, his retirement announcement last week was not welcomed by either the White House or Democratic leaders in Congress.
House Retirements Start To Pick Up
According to Ballotpedia, retirements in the U.S. House of Representatives tend to peak during the November and December before an election year.
This year is no different. Already this month, seven lawmakers have announced they will not be coming back to the U.S. House after the 2024 election. In just the last week, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Texas), Rep. Brian Higgins (R-N.Y.), and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) announced retirements.
Democrats have far more House lawmakers retiring than Republicans and, while the GOP-held seats look like they will remain in Republican control, the same cannot be said of the seats where Democrats are departing Congress. In fact, of the 17 seats 270ToWin has analyzed where a Democrat is retiring, seven are listed as toss up races. (Not one race where a Republican is retiring is listed as vulnerable.)
Most of these vulnerable seats were won by the Democrat somewhat easily in 2022 and they also are all districts President Joe Biden won in 2020. So why are they potential swing districts? One plausible explanation is the current state of the generic congressional ballot question. As readers may recall, this question asks voters which party they would rather have represent them in Congress. According to the RealClearPolitics average of congressional ballot polls, Democrats hold just a 0.4 percent advantage on this question.
Historically, Democrats will need a much higher number than that to pick up seats in the U.S. House. In 1996, for example, when Republicans won a huge House majority, Democrats had a three-point advantage on the generic ballot going into election day. In the hard-fought race of 2016, where Republicans kept control of the U.S. House, Democrats were leading by one point on the congressional ballot.
Another likely factor contributing to 270ToWin’s House predictions is President Biden’s approval rating. As we explained above, the outcome in Congress is closely tied to who wins the White House. Sitting in the low 40s, President Biden’s approval was already low in September and October. In recent days, according to the elections website FiveThirtyEight, the president’s average approval has fallen below 40 percent. As CNN noted, that number is two points below President Donald Trump’s approval ratings one year before he lost the 2020 election. Only President Jimmy Carter’s approval ratings were lower at this point and he, of course, failed to capture a second term in the White House.
Given how closely tied are the fates of House and Senate lawmakers and the president, the rising tide of Democratic retirements may be a bellwether.