ANALYSIS — A consistent drip of members announcing they will not seek reelection combined with a desire to portray Capitol Hill as a toxic place everyone wants to flee can create a narrative that there’s a mass exodus underway from the House.
But that’s not the real story, at least not yet.
Up to this point, 38 House members have decided not to seek another term. Indiana Republicans Greg Pence and Larry Bucshon and Colorado Republican Doug Lamborn were the latest to announce, just in the last few days. Overall, that’s just a few more than average, and that’s with an asterisk.
Over the past 75 years, 34 House members on average did not seek reelection each cycle, according to Vital Statistics on Congress. That includes a low of 21 members in 1956, a high of 65 in 1992 and 49 last cycle in 2022. House exits are often higher in redistricting cycles, when new district lines can force members to make difficult reelection decisions.
In order to make comparisons across cycles, the tally does not include resignations (or expulsions) because those seats will be filled by Election Day and will have new incumbents likely running in the regular election. So not included in the 38 are the seats of former Reps. George Santos of New York and Kevin McCarthy of California and soon-to-be former Reps. Bill Johnson of Ohio and Brian Higgins of New York.
North Carolina Democrats Kathy Manning, Wiley Nickel and Jeff Jackson are included in the 38, but they likely would have run for reelection if Republicans hadn’t redrawn their districts to make them virtually unwinnable for a Democrat. Without redistricting forcing their hands, the number of members not seeking reelection would be remarkably average.
(Alabama Republican Barry Moore was also affected by redistricting, but he’s seeking reelection in the 1st District, so he is not counted among the members not running again.)
Not everyone’s leaving DC
The “fleeing a toxic Washington” narrative is also strained by the fact that one-third of the House members (13 total) not seeking reelection this year are attempting to stay on Capitol Hill by running for the Senate and simply moving to a different part of the building. So it must not just be because of the mood in the nation’s capital.
Of course there’s still time for the number of members leaving to grow. With filing deadlines passed in just nine states, according to Ballotpedia, members in 41 states still have time to decide they don’t want to even try to come back next year.
Even though it will be six months before the final list of members seeking reelection will be complete, there’s already a valuable lesson to be learned: Retirement decisions can take time.
Through June, just 11 members had announced they weren’t seeking another House term, which was remarkably below average. But the current tally demonstrates that there was, and is, plenty of time to get to the historical average or even exceed it. Writing about seven months ago, I was wrong about the reasons why the number of members not seeking reelection would remain below average.
“Republicans are enjoying life in the majority and have a hard time seeing how they’ll lose seats next year with an unpopular president topping the Democratic ticket,” I wrote then. “And Democrats are close enough to see the majority is within reach under the right circumstances, particularly if Republicans nominate Trump for a third time.”
But despite their position in the majority, 16 Republicans are not seeking reelection in the House, compared with 22 Democrats. And when you account for the 13 Democrats and four Republicans running for another office, that leaves 12 Republicans and nine Democrats who are just plain leaving Capitol Hill.
Despite the growing number of members not seeking reelection, there’s still a dearth of competitive open seats. There still aren’t enough to fill out one of Stu Rothenberg’s traditional Dangerous Dozen open seats lists.
Inside Elections rates just five open seats in a category more vulnerable than Likely. California’s 47th District (left behind by Democrat Katie Porter), Michigan’s 8th (Democrat Dan Kildee) and Virginia’s 7th (Democrat Abigail Spanberger) are all rated Tilt Democratic. Michigan’s 7th, currently represented by Democrat Elissa Slotkin, is rated as a Toss-up. Colorado’s 3rd is rated as Tilt Republican, though Republican Lauren Boebert should not be counted as a House retirement because she’s running for election in the 4th District.
There aren’t any specific bellwethers in the House, but Democrats probably need to sweep the competitive open seats in order to have a chance at the overall House majority. And it remains to be seen whether future open seats created by House members not seeking reelection are in competitive districts and further affect the fight for the majority.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.