House Dems head off retirement crisis — for now

By | June 26, 2021

Rep. Stephanie Murphy was hiring staff for an all-but-declared Senate bid in Florida. Rep. Madeleine Dean consulted with Democratic leaders about a potential statewide run in her home state of Pennsylvania. And in Texas, Rep. Vicente Gonzalez was fighting off rumors of retirement.

But all three House Democrats have since declared that they do plan to seek reelection next November, in a sign that the wave of members departing from the House has slowed — at least for now.

“I will one day, but it won’t be anytime soon,” Gonzalez, who faced a surprising scare last November as parts of his district swung sharply toward Republicans, said of a possible retirement. “We’ve hired people. We’ve got more of a robust fundraising operation going on. We’ve been up and down throughout the region.”

Six Democrats so far have announced they will be leaving the House in 2022, most in swing districts where the lack of an incumbent likely makes it tougher for the party to hold the seat. Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, will likely be added to that list, as he’s expected to jump into his state’s Senate race later this summer.

But party strategists say that figure is smaller than they expected, delivering a morale boost for Democrats as they brace for a midterm election that could dismantle their narrow majority. And some swing-seat members in Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida — many of whom were openly mulling futures outside the House — are now expected to stay put.

“I’m just really happy that they’re staying here and fighting the good fight,” said Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) of the several members of Pennsylvania’s House delegation who will be seeking reelection instead of vying for an open Senate seat.

“I think the impression that you give when everybody flees is that it’s a sinking ship. But I don’t think it’s a sinking ship,” Wild said.

It is still early, and there will almost certainly be another exodus of members next year after a potentially painful round of redistricting for Democrats. Some seats in states like Florida and Texas could see purple districts rendered unwinnable by map-drawing Republicans — which could spur some members, even those who have already said they would run for reelection, to head abruptly for the exits. And both parties will be closely monitoring the political environment for indications of what voters will want in 2022: a check on Democratic control of Washington, or further distancing from former President Donald Trump’s GOP.

But Democratic lawmakers and aides say their party has so far avoided the worst-case scenario, in which their most battle-tested members jump ship even before the redistricting commences.

And crucial census data needed to draw new maps is delayed, freezing recruitment in nearly every state. That makes it even more important incumbents stick around because they are armed with high name ID, fully funded coffers and ready-to-go campaign teams for a compressed election. Otherwise, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is stuck scrambling to recruit when new maps finally come out — with little time to entice strong contenders into swing-seat races during the first midterm of a Democratic president.

“There is a normal amount of cycling out,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who leads the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “I think people are energized. … I think being able to show results and deliver for your district makes you more excited about being in Congress. They’re coming back.”

So far, three House Democrats have declared bids for higher office: Reps. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) and Val Demings (D-Fla.). Lamb will likely become the fourth when he enters Pennsylvania’s Senate race in the coming months.

Yet while Democrats will lose Lamb, they will keep both Dean and Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), both of whom had been openly considering jumping into the Senate primary. Both hold relatively safe districts under the current lines, but they might not once Pennsylvania’s GOP legislature and Democratic governor are done squabbling over the new borders.

Democrats are also losing Demings and Crist in Florida, but they are expected to keep Murphy, who ruled out a Senate bid and has begun fundraising for her House run, according to people close to her. That’s a huge boon for Democrats, who consider her to be a star recruit with a powerful biography — she fled Vietnam by boat as an infant, and her family was rescued at sea by the U.S. Navy — and a strong donor pool.

Another Democrat, Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), has also been floated for a potential run for governor or state attorney general in his home state. But the former Phoenix mayor has recently told colleagues he does not plan to run statewide, according to a person familiar with the conversations. Down in Tucson, Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick has already announced her retirement.

After the retirement of Rep. Filemón Vela (D-Texas), there were some Democratic fears that Gonzalez would also start eyeing the exits. Trump saw a surge in support in the rural regions of the Rio Grande Valley, and Gonzalez saw his once-comfortable victory margins slip into just a 3-point win.

“I actually think my neighbor retiring even simplifies my redistricting,” he said, noting that it lessens the competition for a winnable seat in the region.

The House GOP campaign arm seized on the fact that Gonzalez had recently repaid a $250,000 loan to himself as a sign of a pending retirement. But in an interview with POLITICO, he said he always planned on repaying the loan and meant to do it sooner. “I could have done it last year,” he said. “We didn’t spend very much money on our campaign — obviously.”

He said it was “absolutely not” a sign that he plans to retire: “In fact, if I had to loan myself more money, I would do it.”

Another battleground Democrat in south Texas, Rep. Henry Cuellar, is also building his campaign team for another run, according to a person familiar with the plans.

Potentially open Senate seats in Iowa and Wisconsin could lure House Democrats into those races — but neither Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) nor Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has decided on their plans.

In Iowa, Rep. Cindy Axne is considering whether she will run for another term in the House, make a bid for Senate or challenge GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds. “She is still weighing all three of those electoral options,” Ian Mariani, Axne’s spokesperson, said in a statement.

But Democrats on Capitol Hill said they would be surprised if she entered the race. And former Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa) is expected to run for Grassley’s seat.

In southern Wisconsin, Rep. Ron Kind said he hasn’t decided if he will make a run for Senate against Johnson, but there is already a crowded Democratic field in the race, and few think he will take that course.

“I have no reason to believe that he’s not running for Congress again. When he and I talk, that’s what he’s planning on,” fellow Wisconsin Democrat Rep. Mark Pocan said. Another reason to stay: redistricting might not hurt him. “I have to shed 49,000 people,” said Pocan, who represents deep-blue Madison. “So he’ll likely get some of my district.”

“There are numerous easy scenarios where my district gets healthier after redistricting,” Kind agreed.

“I still enjoy the work,” Kind said, and he would probably face the same Republican opponent, whom he already beat once last November. But he also hasn’t ruled out retiring.

“It’s just gotten nasty and so polarized,” he said. “And then, when two-thirds of your colleagues across the aisle, hours after the insurrection, come in and vote to overturn the election result. What’s going on?”