The mass exodus of House Democrats points to a daunting challenge in the midterm elections
In the run-up to the 2020 US election, Cheri Bustos was one of the Democratic campaign leaders tasked with expanding her party’s majority in the House of Representatives.
But their efforts were unsuccessful, and instead of gaining ground, the Democrats lost it, bleeding more than a dozen seats in the lower house of Congress and emerging with a razor-thin majority.
Still, it came as a surprise to many in Joe Biden’s party when Bustos, 60, announced last year that she was retiring at the end of her two-year term. Since then, more shock exits have followed, with over two dozen other House Democrats now saying they will not seek re-election in the midterm elections this November.
The mass exodus underscores the dwindling likelihood of Democrats clinging to control of the House of Commons in the fall.
So far, 28 of 221 House Democrats have said they will not run for re-election, with at least seven lawmakers vacating vulnerable seats where they won by single-digit margins last time around, FT analysis shows. More departures are expected in the coming weeks as deadlines for candidates to submit re-election papers loom.
On Tuesday alone, two lawmakers — Rhode Island’s Jim Langevin and California’s Jerry McNerney — announced they would not seek re-election.
Bustos, once considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, is one of seven “crossover” Democrats to win in 2020 despite Donald Trump defeating Biden in their precincts. Ron Kind of Wisconsin, who has also said he will not run for re-election in the fall, is another.
Both Bustos and Kind’s counties — areas of the Midwest with a large proportion of white, working-class voters who once supported Barack Obama but flocked to Trump and the Republican Party in recent years — are now seen as catching-up opportunities for the GOP.
“These are some of the few remaining counties that I classify as white working class that Democrats still hold, and they’re evaporating across the country,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Several more departures come amid a decennial re-election process that redraws congressional district lines in certain states — an often partisan exercise that has prompted many Democratic lawmakers to end it rather than engage in an increasingly harsh re-election campaign.
Tim Ryan, the Democratic congressman from Ohio who is not seeking re-election to the House of Representatives but instead is running for his party’s U.S. Senate nomination, is vacating a Midwestern seat with a similar white working-class constituency to Bustos and Kind . But while Ryan clinched a 7.6-point victory over his Republican opponent in 2020, all semblance of his district is likely to be wiped out after a contentious Ohio new election process being chaired by Republican state officials.
GK Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat who is also stepping down after a relatively close re-election in 2020, cited that state’s new electoral map in his resignation announcement and called the proposed changes — which are the subject of a lengthy legal battle — a racially motivated Gerrymander, who the would weaken the voice of black voters.
Ann Kirkpatrick, an Arizona Democrat, has also said she will not seek re-election despite winning her seat in 2020 by just over 10 points. Her district, which includes most of Tucson, is being redrawn to heavily favor Republicans heading into the fall.
“We obviously face challenges on several fronts,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic strategist who worked for several years on the Democratic Campaign Committee for Congress, which works to elect Democrats to the House of Representatives. “Some swing districts were taken off the board.”
At least half of Democrat exits come from comfortably “safe” seats for the president’s party. Outgoing Congresswoman Karen Bass, for example, won the 2020 re-election in Los Angeles — where she is running for mayor — by a margin of more than 70 points. But Democrats across the country are acutely aware that an incumbent president’s party has historically suffered heavy losses in midterm elections. Many are also pointing to Biden’s floating approval ratings as a concern.
“Of course, when incumbents run for re-election, your chance of retaining a seat generally increases, but a president who’s under water is bad news for holding those seats, whether there’s an incumbent running or not [not]’ said Russel.
Republicans argue the resignations show congressional Democrats see the writing on the wall and step aside before being shoved into the minority party. By comparison, only 13 members of the Republican House of Representatives have said they will not seek re-election in the fall, and the majority of them are aspiring to higher offices, including the US Senate and governor’s mansions.
“It’s a sign [Democrats] see what’s coming,” Tom Emmer, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told Fox News last week. “This is a sign that they don’t see a bright future with next fall’s election.”
But while consensus in Washington favors Republicans regaining control of the House in November, some Democrats have nonetheless been buoyed by recent Republican resignation announcements.
John Katko, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over his role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, said last Friday that he would not seek re-election in the fall. Katko is another example of a “crossover” candidate who managed to win by more than 10 points in his New York state district in 2020 — despite Biden leading the district by almost the same margin against Trump.
Katko’s seat is also likely to be reallocated by Democratic officials in New York in a way that favors the president’s party, while similar changes could be made in two other counties where New York Republicans — Tom Reed and Lee Zeldin — have said that they will not seek re-election.
“As people pull out of safe Democratic seats, we get more out of it than they do out of safe Republicans [retiring]said Jesse Ferguson, another Democratic strategist and former DCCC agent. “But within the competition arena, it’s not nearly as one-sided as some might have thought.”