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Essential Politics: What’s behind the retirement announcements on Capitol Hill?

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., speaks before the House select committee in Washington, July 27, 2021.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) speaks before the House select committee. She announced on Monday that she will not seek reelection next year.
(Chip Somodevilla / Associated Press)

It’s the holiday season, a time when people look back, reflect on what matters and think about what would bring them joy in the new year.

Several House members have decided “staying in Congress” isn’t on that list.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach calls it “time to pass the baton.” Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard of Downey says she wants to “spend more time with my family,” as does Florida’s Rep. Stephanie Murphy. All three House Democrats announced their plans to retire from Congress within the last week.

Good morning! I’m Arit John, a reporter for the L.A. Times, and today we’re talking about the wave of retirements on Capitol Hill.

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A bleak omen

In a little less than 11 months, Democrats will try to protect their razor-thin majority in the House. Historically, the president’s party rarely picks up seats during the first midterm election, and so far, early indicators look bleak for Democrats’ election success. Republicans won the Virginia governor’s race and nearly won in the blue state of New Jersey this fall. Republicans are winning the generic ballot in polls, and President Biden’s approval ratings are low.

And then come the retirements.

As of this writing, 23 Democrats have announced plans to leave the House of Representatives, with three announcing this week alone.

Eight have announced plans to run for different offices — four are running for the U.S. Senate, two for governor and one each for mayor and attorney general in their states. The rest are exiting public office, at least for now.

Only 11 Republicans have announced retirements, with seven running for other positions. A 12th, Rep. Devin Nunes, is leaving Congress by the end of the month to become CEO of Trump Media & Technology Group.

Those numbers are still a long way off from the record — 41 Democrats and 24 Republicans in 1992, according to the Pew Research Center — but the trend isn’t promising for Democrats.

“It is difficult to disagree with any suggestion that this is more, and earlier, than usual,” said Ian Russell, a former top official at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to the House. Russell worked at the DCCC from 2011 through the 2016 cycle.

No one wants to lose a reelection bid, or win only to be in the minority. Retirements suggest that (at least some) members see one or both outcomes as likely. Retirements also motivate the opposite party.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy led his Dec. 3 press conference with the news that Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat and chairman of the Transportation Committee, said he wouldn’t seek reelection. DeFazio’s announcement followed that of another committee chairman, the Budget Committee’s John Yarmuth of Kentucky.

“It’s different when a committee chair announces retirement,” he said. “They say the exact same thing I say: They’re not going to be in the majority next time.”

While most of the open Democratic seats still trend toward the party, a handful are in districts President Trump has carried. In those seats, the retirement wave is bad news for Democrats because it’s harder to protect an open seat. In a year when Republicans need to win just five seats currently held by Democrats, every one counts. “All things being equal, it is better to have an incumbent in a seat,” said Russell.

Incumbents have higher name recognition, better established fundraising and a deeper understanding of the district and how to win it.

This year is starting to look like the 2018 midterm cycle, when more than two dozen Republicans had either resigned, retired or announced plans to run for other positions by the end of 2017, with several more announcing their departures into 2018. By May, 40 Republicans said they were leaving, compared with just 18 Democrats, according to a count by the New York Times. Democrats went on to gain a net of 41 Republican-held seats and win the majority.

“I have to imagine the DCCC right now is feeling the same way that I did back then,” said John Rogers, who led the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s campaign arm, during the 2018 midterm elections cycle. “You have sitting committee chairs that are retiring. Now you have folks in toss-up races that are retiring, which feels like your job is getting harder every day.”

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‘A very personal decision’

There’s an argument to be made that some members have simply reached retirement age, but that’s complicated in Congress, where the average age of House members was 58.4 at the start of the current session of Congress, and 64.3 in the Senate.

When 71-year-old Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) announced last month she was retiring to spend time with her husband, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 81, said she was “so young,” Speier told The Times.

“An 80-year-old deciding to not run for reelection is a very personal decision,” said Russell. “As is a 40-something rising star like Murphy is. There’s family, there’s the environment in Congress right now, there’s short-term and long-term political calculations. There’s just a lot that goes into it.”

Several retiring members in their 70s and 80s said they wanted to spend more time with family. Yarmuth, the 74-year-old chairman of the powerful Budget Committee, said he felt a “desire to have more control of my time in the years I have left,” when he announced in October that he plans to retire. Yarmuth, who was first elected in 2006, is the sole Democrat in the Kentucky delegation and would have likely had a smooth path to reelection.

Overall, a significant number of retirement decisions do seem to be influenced by a difficult reelection path, regardless of who controls the House, thanks to redistricting and growing Republican strength in their districts. Democratic Reps. Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Ron Kind of Wisconsin both faced competitive reelection races in 2020. Months after Rep. Tim Ryan announced his Senate bid in Ohio, Republican mapmakers there eliminated his congressional seat. Draft maps in Florida divide up Murphy’s district.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina specifically called out Republicans, after new maps there made his district more competitive.

“The map that was recently enacted by the legislature is a partisan map,” Butterfield said in his November retirement announcement. “It’s racially gerrymandered, it will disadvantage African American communities all across the first congressional district.”

The question for next year is how many Democratic lawmakers will be forced into retirement in November.

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The view from Washington

— On Tuesday, Biden announced that his administration plans to combat the Omicron variant by mobilizing military medical personnel and equipment. Chris Megerian, Erin B. Logan and Anumita Kaur report the plans come as the extremely contagious variant has become dominant in the U.S. and the administration faces criticism for playing catch-up.

— Speaking of playing catch-up, last Friday Vice President Kamala Harris acknowledged that the administration didn’t expect the latest variant. “We didn’t see Omicron coming. And that’s the nature of what this, this awful virus has been, which as it turns out, has mutations and variants,” Harris said during a wide-ranging interview with Noah Bierman.

— Sen. Joe Manchin‘s announcement that he would not support Democrats broad social spending bill appeared to tank any chances of his party making progress on many of its domestic policy goals, including climate change. But as Eli Stokols and Megerian reported Monday, Democrats are determined to charge ahead with some version of their “Build Back Better” bill — at the very least one they can get across the finish line. As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) put it: “We will keep voting on it until we get something done.”

The view from California

— Among the winners in California redistricting: Latino voters. Latinos would make up the majority of the voting age population in nearly one-third of congressional districts under the draft maps approved on Monday in a unanimous vote by the independent citizen panel tasked with redrawing maps, Seema Mehta, Melanie Mason and John Myers reported.

— Gov. Gavin Newsom talked about his struggle with dyslexia while governing through the coronavirus pandemic in a profile by Times reporters Taryn Luna and Phil Whillon. “I’m in a sort of perpetual place of trying to overcompensate, trying to prove something to myself,” Newsom told The Times.

A quick programming note: This is the last edition of Essential Politics for 2021. We’ll be back in your inbox in January.

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