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‘We have got a problem here’: Low morale and redistricting hand Democrats a growing retirement issue

<i>Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images</i><br/>The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is seen on November 16 in Washington
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Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is seen on November 16 in Washington

By Dan Merica, CNN

There is a growing sense of gloom among Democrats in the House. And every week or so, when another Democratic member of Congress announces they won’t run for reelection in 2022, the mood inside the caucus worsens.

Morale in the House is already markedly low, but as Democrats look ahead to what could become a trying midterm election cycle, the overwhelming belief is that the wave of retirements has yet to crash.

That was captured on Monday when two Democratic members announced they would not seek reelection in November.

First was Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy, who announced she would not seek reelection after three terms in the House. She stated that her time in office was both “the honor of my life” and “incredibly challenging for my family and me,” but her decision comes as the Republican-led legislature in Florida has taken interest in redrawing the district she represents, a move that would have made it harder for the Democrat to hold onto the Orlando-area seat.

Then came California Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, who said in a statement Monday night that “after thirty years in the House of Representatives, the time has come for me to spend more time with my family.”

And then on Tuesday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed New Jersey Democratic Rep. Albio Sires would also retire.

So far, 23 members of the House Democratic Caucus have announced they will not seek reelection. While it is common for the party in control to see a series of high-profile retirements ahead of a difficult midterm cycle, the sentiment inside the caucus is that even more departures are likely. A combination of political winds tilting toward Republicans, redistricting boxing some members out of easier races and an overall low morale among House members could lead to even more retirements in the coming months.

“We have got a problem here,” retiring Rep. Cheri Bustos said of the general morale inside the House. “There are way too many people serving as members of Congress right now who I not only don’t look up to, I have zero respect for. And I’m saddened to have to say that.”

Bustos, who was first elected in 2012 and represents western Illinois, announced she was retiring earlier in the year and told CNN that she was looking for “a new chapter in her life.” But it’s clear that the current standing of Congress loomed over the decision. Bustos said that while she believes some Democrats aren’t “team players” — she did not name names — the bulk of her concerns are with Republicans, and the prospect of turning over power to the GOP in 2022 is disturbing for all Democrats in Congress.

“When you’ve only got a three- or four-vote majority and you see people who are in tough districts announcing that they’re not running for reelection, yeah, everybody worries about what’s ahead,” said Bustos, the former chair of House Democrats’ campaign arm.

Republicans have also had some noteworthy retirements. Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, announced earlier this year that he would not run for reelection, and California Rep. Devin Nunes announced last week that he would be leaving the House to become CEO of the Trump Media & Technology Group.

But retirements are a problem Democrats, as the party in power, particularly can’t afford. The party has a slim majority in the House and with polls showing Republicans are overall in a better position to win congressional races next year, any slight change — like an unexpected retirement in a swing seat — could prove costly.

Democratic members are aware of the party’s current standing on the generic ballot, a survey question that asks respondents if they would be more likely to vote for Democrats or Republicans and often serves as a leading indicator of who will do better in the subsequent midterms. The fear is that members considering retirement may factor in those polls as they finalize their decision in the coming weeks.

The bigger issue, according to Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic operative who previously worked at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is that retirements “absolutely effect the psyche of the caucus” because members who are staying “evaluate these retirements based on their frame of reference inside the caucus, not based on the political implications of this open seat in the midterms.”

‘A 2010 kind of problem’

Retirements pose a problem for the party in power because time and money are finite resources, and retirements in competitive seats often require the party to expend both in a race they had not anticipated. First, the party must help recruit a candidate in the district, hoping to do whatever they can to make up for the name recognition that the retiring incumbent had. Second, the party’s campaign committees will have to spend money for that candidate — a figure that is almost always significantly more than they would have spent on an incumbent.

And Democratic retirements are stacking up.

Earlier this month, Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon announced he would not seek reelection, leaving behind his powerful chairmanship of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Earlier this year, Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson announced she would not seek reelection, departing her role as chair of the Space, Science and Technology Committee. And Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth, chair of the Budget Committee, also said he won’t see reelection in 2022.

But the problem extends far beyond powerful committee chairs and includes some districts that will be difficult for Democrats to hold in a tough year.

Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind, one of few Democrats who represents a district that voted for former President Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, announced earlier this year he wouldn’t run again, opening a seat in an area Republicans are confident they could win. Arizona Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick was the first congressional Democrat to announce she would not seek reelection in March, vacating the Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District, which was represented by a Republican before she won in 2018. And New York Rep. Tom Suozzi recently announced he would run for governor and not seek reelection in his Long Island district, which could be competitive if Democrats face a particularly difficult cycle.

Each retirement has been cheered by Republicans.

“Every Democratic retirement demoralizes their party further and forces Democrats to spend precious resources defending competitive seats,” said Michael McAdams, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “No one wants to run as a House Democrat this cycle.”

So far, Democratic leaders — at least publicly — are rejecting the idea that Democrats have a retirement problem.

“It’s pretty standard stuff,” Sean Patrick Maloney, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told CNN’s Manu Raju. “Anybody who serves in this Congress knows that these are personal decisions. No, I’m not that worried about it. I think the Republicans are still going to have to have at least one good idea for America. They can’t do it with tricks and stacking the deck.”

But there is a sense inside the caucus that things have not been as rosy as Maloney and others would like people to believe.

Rep. Filemón Vela, a Texas Democrat who announced earlier in the year that he would not seek reelection, said he is confident the party will do fine in the midterms “if we’ve got control of inflation and Covid by the summer of next year.”

“I’m not going to say we keep the majority because it is tight both ways,” he said. “But if next November comes around and we’re still in the middle of the Covid crisis and inflation is through the roof then, yeah, we’ve got a big problem.”

After a pause, Vela — who said he was retiring because he “wanted to do something else” — added that if those issue continue to pester Democrats, “you’ve got a 2010 kind of problem,” referencing the midterm election when Democrats lost 63 seats.

“It’s a valid concern,” Vela said of worries about retirements. “If we’d been in the middle of midterms last month, I think even seats like mine could have gotten lost. But I don’t think that is going to happen next year.”

‘We haven’t hit Christmas yet’

One of the reasons for gloom inside the Democratic caucus is that many of the members have experienced this trend before.

In 2010, two years after President Barack Obama was elected, both parties had to deal with retirements — 17 for Democrats, compared to 20 for Republicans. But voters still dealt a stinging blow to Democrats and vaulted Republican into power with a 63-seat shift.

“In 2010, it was far worse than anything since because several of those retirements came from overwhelmingly Republican districts that Democrats really couldn’t compete for once the incumbents had retired,” said Ferguson.

Ferguson added that one reason these retirements — along with some of this year’s — are particularly powerful is because they came from districts that became remarkably difficult for Democrats to defend.

“Not all retirements are equal, and retirements from seats you are unlikely to hold are the worse retirements,” said Ferguson, who said a silver lining for the party is that only a few of the retirements this year have come in highly competitive districts.

Retirements hit Republicans hard in 2018, with the party having to deal with a substantial 37 departures. Republicans at the time worried the figure presaged numerous defeats just two years after Trump took office. And they were right. Democrats would take back the House in 2018, dealing a blow to Trump and Republican control of Washington.

“The biggest problem is the surprise and the uncertainty. You know the competitive seats, two years before Election Day — or at least most of them,” said Matt Gorman, the top communications operative at the National Republican Congressional Committee during the 2018 midterms. “When these pop up, often times, they are putting you in a worse spot than you were before. And it sucks up time and finding candidates to run and money.”

Gorman, like other political watchers, thinks Democrats’ retirement problem is about to grow.

“We haven’t hit Christmas yet,” he said, describing how destabilizing it was when GOP Rep. Darrell Issa — who is now back in Congress — announced he would not seek reelection in early January of 2018. “That’s the time. You do it right after the holidays after you take about it with your family.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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