Why Are So Many House Democrats Leaving Congress?

“It’s become a toxic work environment,” a chief of staff to one retiring Democrat told VICE News.

Jan 13 2022, 5:35pm

It’s not much fun to be a House Democrat right now—and it might be about to get much worse, leading to a wave of retirements.

Twenty-six House Democrats have already announced they won’t run for another term—more than 10 percent of the caucus and double the number of Republicans heading for the exits. And with almost a year until the next Congress, those numbers will likely grow.

“I’ve never seen a two-year cycle where you have more external variables bearing down at the same time,” former New York Rep. Steve Israel, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) from 2011 through 2014, told VICE News. “There’s a convergence between Jan. 6, redistricting, a president’s first midterm, and the generally angry mood of the electorate. That explains why you’re seeing a larger number of retirements.”

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Democrats are facing a brutal political environment, an increasingly toxic workplace driven by COVID and the fallout from the Capitol riot, changes to their House districts driven by redistricting, and the likelihood that they’ll be in the House minority come next year. That’s leading many—especially older members—to wonder whether it’s worth it anymore.

More House Democrats have already announced their retirements than in any election cycle since 1996, right after Democrats lost the House in the 1994 elections. The 26 Democrats who’ve said they’ll leave the House matches the number of House Republicans who retired last election cycle, right after they’d lost the House and when many thought they were heading into another tough election.

The numbers are even more lopsided when you look at House members who are straight-up retiring rather than running for higher office. While 18 House Democrats are leaving office entirely, only six Republicans are—and two are GOP Reps. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, whose votes to impeach Trump made them personas non grata within their party. 

Democrats acknowledge that a daunting political environment is a significant factor. President Biden’s poll numbers are abysmal, almost as bad as then-President Trump’s were at this point in 2018, and Democrats are widely expected to lose the House as a result. That means Democrats who run for reelection will likely be stuck in the minority, a powerless position, with the Republicans they’ve increasingly come to loathe in charge.

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“The political environment does play a factor. Clearly we need Biden’s favorability numbers to pick up. There’s no denying it, it’s a problem for us,” said former Texas Rep. Martin Frost, also a former DCCC chairman.

Most of these Democratic retirements won’t have a direct impact on the 2022 midterms, however. Only a handful of those House Democrats who are retiring hold politically competitive districts. While Democrats acknowledge the retirements of Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy and Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind are blows to their chances at holding their seats, they think they’ll be able to hold the new Democratic-leaning districts of Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos and Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter.

But it’s always a tell that a party isn’t confident about its chances in an upcoming election when a bunch of members decide to retire. When House Republicans knew they were heading for a shellacking in 2018, 33 of them opted to retire. After Republicans lost the House, another 26 bowed out before the 2020 elections, which members of both parties incorrectly assumed would be another tough election for House Republicans. 

This year is no different, and Democrats privately acknowledge that they face a steep uphill battle to maintain their slim House majority.

But it’s also just a miserable time to be in the House—and for Democrats, it could be about to get much worse. 

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“Congress has gone from an adversarial work environment to a hostile work environment,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, who was a senior DCCC aide for the 2010, 2012 and 2014 election cycles. “It shouldn’t surprise anyone that people in safe districts aren’t that excited to re-up for Congress the way it is right now.”

Members have spent the past two years working through a pandemic where the fun and interesting parts of the job—meeting constituents, traveling, seeing colleagues in person—have been curtailed by COVID. The constant travel back and forth from districts to D.C. isn’t just a hassle; it’s a health risk. Omicron has renewed members’ worries about their own exposures, and those worries have been exacerbated by the half of House Republicans who won’t say if they’ve been vaccinated and the dozens who refuse to wear masks. The House isn’t immune from the “Great Resignation.” 

On top of that, lawmakers survived a terrifying experience on Jan. 6, and tensions between Democrats and Republicans have only intensified since that harrowing day.

“You cannot discount the impact that Jan. 6 had on some of these members. When your colleagues are threatening physical violence against you and your health and safety by refusing to wear masks and bringing guns on the floor, it’s become a toxic work environment,” a chief of staff to one retiring House Democrat told VICE News.

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The riot and its aftermath have weighed heavily on some members.

“I’ve talked to many of them and they’ve told me it had a profound personal effect on them and their families,” Israel said. “There’s been a form of post-traumatic stress that’s set in on both sides of the aisle and heavy tension that hasn’t dissipated from that day.”

Redistricting is another major factor in some lawmakers’ career plans: The once-a-decade redrawing of congressional lines has made some members’ districts much tougher to win.

Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan opted for a Senate bid earlier this year, knowing that Republicans planned to gerrymander his GOP-trending seat to make it unwinnable. The prospect of a tough district getting tougher likely played a role in Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb’s decision to run for Senate as well. Murphy decided to retire after seriously considering a Senate bid, only to be blocked when fellow Rep. Val Demings jumped in. Rep. Charlie Crist has wanted to return to statewide office ever since he lost a Senate bid in 2010, but the chance that GOP gerrymandering could make his Tampa Bay seat tougher may have also played a factor for him as well.

Perlmutter, the latest Democrat to announce his retirement, insisted that Democrats would hold his newly drawn suburban Denver district but acknowledged that “the numbers are slightly tighter” than in the old map.

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It’s not just Democrats who are being pushed by redistricting—New York Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin is running for governor partly because Democrats plan to gerrymander his Long Island district.

And even lawmakers from safe districts can face headaches from redistricting—they have to introduce themselves to new constituents, refocus on issues that matter to voters they suddenly represent, and get to know communities they’re sometimes unfamiliar with. That’s work that some lawmakers just don’t want to put in.

And some Democrats are just plain ready to retire. Seventeen of the 26 House Democrats who are leaving office are at least 65 years old, including 14 of the 18 who are straight-up retiring rather than leaving the House to run for higher office.

Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush, who is 75 and leaving office after three decades in Congress, told VICE News that spending more time with his family was a key reason—and that a recent conversation where a grandson said he didn’t call more because he didn’t want to interrupt Rush’s work had helped sway him.

“I asked my grandson Jonathan, ‘Why don’t I hear from you more, man?’ He said, ‘We know you’re very busy.’ My grandchildren don’t call me because they think I’m busy doing the nation’s work,” he said. “I’ve spent almost 40 years as an elected official. It’s time to turn the page on this.”

Tagged:

GOP, Republicans, congress, Democrats, midterms

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