Exodus of House Democrats points to daunting US midterms challenge

Selina Johansson

In the run-up to the 2020 US elections, Cheri Bustos was one of the Democrats’ campaign chiefs, tasked with expanding her party’s majority in the House of Representatives.

But her efforts fell short and, rather than gaining ground, the Democrats lost it, haemorrhaging more than a dozen seats in the lower chamber of Congress and emerging with a razor-thin majority.

Still, it came as a surprise to many in President Joe Biden’s party when Bustos, 60, announced last year that she would be retiring at the end of her two-year term. Since then, more shock exits have followed, with two dozen more House Democrats now saying they will not seek re-election in this November’s midterms.

The exodus underscores the increasingly slim likelihood that the Democrats will be able to cling on to control of the lower chamber in the autumn.

So far, 28 out of 221 House Democrats have said they will not stand for re-election, with at least seven lawmakers vacating vulnerable seats where they won by single-digit margins last time around, analysis by the Financial Times shows. More departures are expected in the coming weeks, as deadlines for candidates to file re-election paperwork loom.

On Tuesday alone, two lawmakers — Jim Langevin of Rhode Island and Jerry McNerney of California — announced they would not be seeking re-election.

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Once seen as a rising star in the Democratic party, Bustos is one of seven “crossover” Democrats who managed to win in 2020 despite Donald Trump beating Biden in their districts. Ron Kind of Wisconsin, who has also said he will not seek re-election in the autumn, is another.

Both Bustos and Kind’s districts — Midwestern areas with a large share of white working-class voters who once backed Barack Obama but have flocked to Trump and the Republican party in recent years — are now seen as pick-up opportunities for the GOP.

“Those are some of the few remaining districts I classify as white working-class that the Democrats still hold, and they are evaporating across the country,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Several additional departures come amid a once-a-decade redistricting process that will see congressional district lines redrawn in certain states — an often partisan exercise that has prompted many Democratic lawmakers to call it quits rather than fight an increasingly uphill re-election battle.

Tim Ryan, the Democratic congressman from Ohio, who is not seeking re-election for the House but is instead bidding for his party’s nomination for the US Senate, is vacating a Midwestern seat with a similar white working-class electorate to Bustos and Kind. But while Ryan eked out a 7.6-point victory in 2020 over his Republican opponent, any semblance of his district is likely to be wiped out following a contentious redistricting process in Ohio that is being led by Republican state officials.

GK Butterfield, a Democrat from North Carolina who is also stepping aside after a relatively close re-election in 2020, cited the state’s new electoral map in his retirement announcement, calling the proposed changes — which are the subject of a protracted legal battle — a racially motivated gerrymander that 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 by just over 10 points in 2020. Her district, which includes almost all of Tucson, is being redrawn to heavily favour Republicans heading into the autumn.

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“We are obviously facing challenges on a number of fronts,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic strategist who spent several years at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to the House. “A number of swing districts have been taken off the board.”

At least half of the Democratic retirements come from comfortably “safe” seats for the president’s party. Outgoing congresswoman Karen Bass, for example, won re-election in 2020 in Los Angeles — where she is running for mayor — by a margin of more than 70 points. But Democrats nationwide are acutely aware that an incumbent president’s party historically suffers heavy losses in midterm elections. Many also point to Biden’s sliding approval ratings as a cause for concern.

“Having incumbents run for re-election generally increases your odds of keeping a seat, of course, but a president who is under water is bad news for holding these seats, whether there is an incumbent running there or [not],” said Russell.

Republicans argue the retirements demonstrate that congressional Democrats see the writing on the wall, and are stepping aside before being thrust into the minority party. By comparison, just 13 Republican House members have said they will not seek re-election in the autumn, and the majority of them are pursuing higher offices, including the US Senate and governors’ mansions.

“It is a sign that [Democrats] see what is coming,” Tom Emmer, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told Fox News last week. “This is a sign that they don’t see a bright future with the election next fall.”

But while the conventional wisdom in Washington favours Republicans taking back control of the House in November, some Democrats have nevertheless been buoyed by recent Republican retirement 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 autumn. Katko is another example of a “crossover” candidate who managed to win in his upstate New York district by more than 10 points in 2020 — despite Biden carrying the district by almost the same margin against Trump.

Katko’s seat is also likely to be redistricted by Democratic officials in New York in a way that favours the president’s party, while similar changes could be made in two more districts where New York Republicans — Tom Reed and Lee Zeldin — have said they will not seek re-election.

“With people retiring from safe Democratic seats, we do have more of those than they have of safe Republicans [retiring],” said Jesse Ferguson, another Democratic strategist and former DCCC operative. “But within competitive seats, it is not anywhere near as lopsided as some may have thought it would be.”

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