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Why Democrats aren't panicking about congressional retirements (yet)

As congressional retirements start piling up, should Democratic leaders be concerned? Probably not yet.


As a rule, leaders of both parties like to keep retirements to a minimum. There's no great mystery behind the strategy: Incumbents generally stand a better chance of winning re-election, and the more members head for the exits, the more party leaders have to worry about competitive contests and potentially messy primaries.

With this in mind, Democratic leaders took note when two longtime incumbents announced this week that their current terms will be their last. NBC News reported:

Two more House Democrats — Reps. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., and David Price, D-N.C., — announced Monday they won't seek re-election next fall, making them the latest members to head for the door as their party gears up to defend its slim majority next year.

Though these members may not be household names outside their home states, Doyle chairs a powerful panel on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, while Price chairs a powerful panel on the House Appropriations Committee.

Their announcement came just days after House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat, said he's also retiring. All told, 12 House Democrats have so far announced plans to give up their seats at the end of 2022.

At face value, observers might see these announcements as evidence of real trouble for Democrats — a signal that members expect the party to lose their narrow majority in next year's midterm elections.

But the context matters.

First, of the 12 House Democrats giving up their House seats, five are running for statewide offices. If these lawmakers expected 2022 to be awful for their party, this wouldn't happen.

Second, by the standards of the last couple of decades, 12 just isn't that big a number. In the last midterm cycle — 2018, when Republicans lost their House majority — there were already several more GOP retirement announcements.

Third, the number of House Democrats giving up their seats next year isn't much different from the number of House Republicans doing the same thing: 12 to 10.

Finally, the electoral dynamic to keep a close eye on isn't just the number of retirements, but where there will be new vacancies. Doyle and Price, for example, represent heavily Democratic districts, and chances are, they'll be replaced by other Democrats, leaving the size of the party's conference intact.

Perhaps more interesting is the Senate, where five Republican incumbents are retiring — opening up some competitive contests in battleground states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Ohio — and as of now, zero Senate Democrats are retiring.