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"The Great Resignation" on Capitol Hill


Reapportionment and a pessimistic view of the outcome of next year's midterms have many members of Congress thinking about retirement.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor announced three percent of U.S. workers quit their jobs in September — the highest turnover rate on record. While labor experts contemplate the causes and implications of the so-called “Great Resignation,” it seems members of Congress are jumping on the bandwagon.


Federal lawmakers are deciding to leave their jobs, too. This week, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the longest-serving U.S. senator in his state’s history who has been in the upper chamber of Congress for more than 45 years, announced he will not seek reelection next year. Sen. Leahy is 81. If he served another full term, he would be 88 when he left office.


The reason for Sen. Leahy’s departure probably has more to do with that fact than Democrats’ prospects in the 2022 midterm elections, but what about in other places and races around the country? Are lawmakers worried and leaving at higher rates than normal? And, if so, what could that mean for next year’s election?


Congressional Retirements Now And Then

According to the political website Ballotpedia, as of November 16, six U.S. senators and 25 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have announced that they will not run for their current seats in next year’s midterm elections. In the Senate, the exodus has impacted Republicans the most. Five GOP senators are not running again while just one Democrat – Sen. Leahy – will not return. In the House, 15 of the retiring lawmakers are Democrats while 10 are from the GOP.


Looking at data from Open Secrets, which tracks government spending in politics, these numbers appear to be on track to reach or exceed the number of retirements seen in previous midterm election years. In 2018, the year that then-President Donald Trump’s Republican party was routed in House elections, there were 51 total retirements in the House — 33 for the GOP and 18 for Democrats. In 2010, the year then-President Barack Obama’s Democrats took, what by President Obama’s own admission, was “a shellacking” in the midterms, there were 30 House retirements (16 Democrats and 14 Republicans).


Four senators (all Republican) retired in 2018 while 11 (six Republicans and four Democrats) departed in 2010.


The Retirement Flood Is Just Beginning

Most political analysts expect the pace of retirement announcements to hasten in the new year.


In fact, retiring Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – the organization that is in charge of U.S. House elections for the Democrats – during the 2020 election cycle, told The Washington Post last week announcements tend to pick up “usually after Thanksgiving and Christmas.” (Rep. Bustos also told The Post “she can’t even count on two hands the number of her colleagues who have said they wished they were retiring.”)


Data supports Rep. Bustos’ statements. Between January 2011 and August 2021, Ballotpedia tracked 264 retirement announcements from members of the U.S. House and Senate. According to its numbers, the January immediately before an election traditionally has had the highest number of retirement announcements. February also is relatively active, especially in an election year.


And there’s a good reason for that timing. In many states, candidates for office have until January, February, or even March to file the paperwork needed to get on the ballot. In other words: there is still plenty of time for current lawmakers to bow out — and for new candidates to take their places on the ballot.


This year, 12 of the retiring lawmakers are seeking another office. Nineteen are hanging up their public service hats entirely. No matter what their next step is, however, their leaving makes it incrementally harder for the incumbent party to hold on to that seat in Congress.


That’s because, even in the toughest of election cycles, the overwhelming majority of incumbents are reelected.


Most Incumbents Are Reelected

Even in “wave” election years where one party makes huge gains — which, as I noted last week, 2022 very well could be — it is hard to beat a lawmaker who already is in office. As Open Secrets has said, “Few things in life are more predictable than the chances of an incumbent member of the U.S. House of Representatives winning reelection. With wide name recognition, and usually an insurmountable advantage in campaign cash, House incumbents typically have little trouble holding onto their seats.”


According to Open Secrets data, House lawmakers’ reelection rates have hovered around 90 percent since around 1980. (The same is true of the U.S. Senate.) In 2004, a presidential election year, the House reelection rate was an incredible 96 percent. In 2010 and 2018 — midterm election years where the president’s party lost dozens and dozens of seats — the reelection rate was still an impressive 84 percent.


This phenomenon reaches further down-ballot too. According to Ballotpedia, the incumbent win rate for policymakers at all levels of government was above 90 percent in the vast majority of states in the 2020 election. In New Jersey, every lawmaker on the ballot returned to office that year. (Of course, as I wrote two weeks ago, things were a little different in 2021.) Voters from Ohio, West Virginia, and California are the most finicky. Their reelections rates in 2020 were 87 percent, 87 percent, and 85 percent, respectively.


While Congress’ overall approval ratings are very low, voters mostly like the people they have sent to Washington, and choose to bring them back again and again. So what, then, causes a lawmaker who is, on balance, pretty likely to be reelected to decide to leave? Let’s take a look.


The Impact Of Redistricting

When Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) announced her retirement yesterday, The Hill noted the congresswoman “won reelection last year by a nearly 60-point margin.” Clearly, she is not worried about a tough race since it seems her constituents have an extremely favorable view of her, but, as The Hill said, “lawmaker retirements are often viewed as an early sign of pessimism ahead of an election year.”


And Democrats definitely are pessimistic … about a lot of things.


According to The Washington Post, House Budget Committee John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) is leaving Congress because partisan sniping on Capitol Hill has just become too toxic. Rep. Bustos, who is cited above, told The Post she just does not like her job anymore. Others are worried that if their party is not in control of Congress in 2023, they just will not get anything done during President Joe Biden’s last two years in office.


But displeasure with the job is not the only factor at play, of course. Fear also is a factor, and Democrats’ fears seem to be centered on what is happening in various states around the country.


As readers are well aware, every 10 years the U.S. Census Bureau attempts to count every person in the United States. The number of seats each state has in the U.S. Congress is based on these numbers. After state officials learn how many seats they will have, they get to work redrawing congressional districts. We’ll delve into a more comprehensive update on states’ redistricting work in the weeks ahead, but because Republicans hold power in the majority of statehouses, they have greater control of how redistricting will play out. That means that the Democrats are likely to face a set of challenging new maps in states across the country next year.


If anything is going to make an incumbent lawmaker nervous, it is changes to the outlines of the district they represent. And, this year, the Census redrawing comes after Democrats endured significant losses in off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey.


Rep. Cheri Bustos told The Washington Post, “If what happened in Virginia were to play out nationally we would lose 44 seats … And that’s even before redistricting.”


The Bottom Line On Congressional Retirements

While in recent times about 80 to 90 percent of U.S. congressional seats have been considered safe — meaning the party already in power has a significant advantage when it comes to voter registration and energy — a retirement still means the party in power has to recruit a new candidate and spend additional money to retain the seat. In a year where that party is facing strong headwinds, like Democrats are now, those investments take time and money away from other, closer races.


If the pace of retirements quickens, especially for Democrats, they might just have more challenges on their hands than they can handle.

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