Who will control Congress? House departures set up uncertain future for chamber's balance

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WASHINGTON – After a bitter and eventful year on Capitol Hill, 40 members of the House of Representatives have announced they'll retire in 2023.

The departures could set up a sea change on Capitol Hill. The partisan tilt of the retirements – 26 Democrats leaving office versus 14 Republicans – has fueled debate among lawmakers and analysts over the governing party's prospects for holding onto power in the 2022 midterm elections.

"There's no doubt (that retirements are) making it more difficult for Democrats to hold onto the majority for next year. It's become a bigger threat to the majority than redistricting," said Dave Wasserman, an elections analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Though many Democratic retirements are in districts unlikely to flip parties this year, the vacating of competitive seats – such as those held by Reps. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., and Ron Kind, D-Wis. – may spell trouble for the incumbent party, which would otherwise depend on local personalities to buoy it through tough election cycles.

"These are Democrats who have what I would consider value above replacement," Wasserman said. Bustos, Kind and Murphy "have unique personal appeal in their districts that's hard for their Democratic successors to try and replicate."

Last week, Reps. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., and Bobby Rush, D-Ill., announced they'd retire from their seats in Detroit and Chicago, respectively. The vacancies have already sparked energetic primaries in the majority Black, Democratic-leaning districts.

"The Democratic retirements we're seeing are not a surprise. The silver lining is that most of them are in safe Democratic districts or not highly competitive ones," said Tim Hogan, a Democratic strategist.

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Why are so many in Congress retiring?

Lawmakers’ rationales for retiring vary widely. The decennial congressional redistricting process, when states redraw the lines of state and federal districts for lawmakers, has imperiled some members.

Fear of a blowout like 2010, when Democrats lost a net 63 seats, haunts the party. Retirements in competitive districts coupled with aggressive Republican gerrymandering in redistricting shocked the party in the early Obama years, a defeat party strategists are determined to avoid in November.

Democrats' own aggressive gerrymanders in Illinois, Maryland and New York, along with fierce pushback on GOP gerrymandering and intervention from state courts, have blunted the worst-case scenario for the party.

"I don't think redistricting is as big a story for the 2022 election as several other factors," said David Polyansky, a Republican strategist at Axiom Strategies, a conservative political consulting firm. "That story is going to play out in full over a decade, not an election cycle."

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Low morale in the Democratic caucus has led some lawmakers to contemplate retirement. Several Democrats told USA TODAY that the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and ensuing threats from supporters of former President Donald Trump made them rethink whether they want to stay in Congress.

"I think a big question mark is how many more retirements will take place," said Matt Terrill, a Republican strategist with Firehouse Strategies, a conservative political consulting firm. Though the GOP may enjoy some perceived momentum heading into the fall, Terrill said, "we're still a long ways out here" from the election.

Republicans point to the Democratic retirements, plus an energized conservative base, as evidence the GOP is likely to take back the lower chamber this year.

"The Democrats just keep stumbling on policies, politics, even basic messaging, and Republicans have done a fine job of just letting all that play out," Polyansky said.

He argued that Democrats have done a poor job of communicating their policies, such as President Joe Biden's sweeping climate and social spending package, and the public is concerned about the pandemic and the state of the economy, among other issues.

"For some reason, they focused on the importance of massive federal spending but never told people what they were buying. That's bad at ordinary moments. It's unthinkable in the middle of an economic crisis," Polyansky said.

Open seats present challenges, opportunity

The vacancies also present an opportunity for Democrats to refresh their roster of legislators as the party's young, diverse base yearns for a new generation.

"There is an opportunity for the Democratic Party to help grow their bench in Congress by having competitive races in those seats," Hogan said, contending that seats being vacated by Bustos, Murphy and Kind were always going to be uphill climbs for the party.

"We were going to have to compete in them regardless, and they don't feel out of reach," Hogan, the Democratic strategist, said. "I think that's the important difference between what we saw in 2010 and what we're seeing in 2022."

"We're looking at a very, very narrow band of the House that's likely to be competitive, and it's highly dependent on the way district lines are drawn," Wasserman said. States that used a neutral redistricting process, such as Arizona, California, Colorado and Michigan, host more competitive races than states such as Illinois or Texas, where one party controlled the process, he said.

Several states employ independent redistricting commissions that draw lines without the influence of elected officials with an interest in the outcome, such as governors and state legislatures.

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“You can't say definitively that redistricting is going to have a net positive effect for Democrats, but those 2010 maps were so horrific that I think we've made progress in 2022," Hogan said, referring to Republican gerrymanders in several states that splintered the influence of urban voters.

Democratswere able to overcome many of those gerrymanders in the 2018 midterm elections when many suburbs supported the party.

Wasserman is confident that Republicans are favored to win the House, though much will hinge on how voters feel about issues such as the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and Biden in November.

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Among Republicans, 14 lawmakers will leave the House. Most of those retirements will be lawmakers seeking state office.

Of the 26 Democrats retiring from Congress, eight seek to become a mayor, senator or governor.

"Republicans' retirements are mostly from safe districts," Wasserman said, meaning there is little opportunity for Democrats to benefit from the departures.

Several Democrats leaving Congress have launched campaigns for state office, including Reps. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Charlie Crist, D-Fla. Each occupies a district that will be heavily altered or eliminated in this year's redistricting.

Reps. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., and Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, are either imperiled by redistricting or face difficult reelection campaigns after their opposition to Trump. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind., said he will retire to honor a term limit pledge he set at the start of his tenure in Congress.

On Friday, Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump when the president was accused of inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection, announced that he will retire from Congress. Katko's retirement was welcomed by the former president, who has frequently publicized his vendetta against the lawmakers.

"Great news, another one bites the dust," Trump said in a statement.

Political consultants and election analysts who spoke to USA TODAY agreed that the number of retirements this year is in line with an average midterm cycle.

Though the number and composition of the retirements on both sides of the aisle present a clear trend, they said, the party that controls Congress next year will come down to future retirements, public assessment of major issues and the nation's assessment of the Biden administration and Congress. There are several months to go for each of those factors to crystalize.

"When there's so much working against the party that's in power, like right now, then the party that isn't in power, in spite of all their flaws, has tremendous opportunity," said Jean Card, a co-chair of RightNOW Women PAC, a conservative group that supports Republican female candidates.

"That doesn't mean we can't screw this up, obviously," Card cautioned. "I think both parties are in really bad shape."

Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.

Contributing: Ledyard King

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: House: Democratic retirements mean an uncertain future for the majority

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