2022 midterms

Watch Democratic Retirements for Clues About House Midterms

Pelosi plans to give up her gavel at the end of her current term. But she doesn’t want to hand it to Kevin McCarthy. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Election-weary readers may think it’s too early to pay any attention to the 2022 midterms — but like it or not, they are relevant right now. Joe Biden and his congressional allies are only guaranteed a governing trifecta through the end of next year (and that’s if a Democratic resignation or death doesn’t disrupt the Senate control they hold via Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote). If they adjudge themselves likely to lose that trifecta in the midterms, they may take greater risks in getting as much of their agenda enacted now, as opposed to later (including such gambits as Chuck Schumer’s trial balloon on obtaining Senate parliamentarian approval of multiple reconciliation bills for each budget resolution).

Thanks to the staggered nature of Senate elections, 2022 actually doesn’t look bad for Democrats in the upper chamber. Twenty Republican seats are up compared to 15 Democratic ones, and five Senate Republican retirements have already been announced, with others still possible, while so far no Democrats are retiring.

The House, though, is another matter. A swing of just five seats would give Republicans control, and the average swing against the party controlling the White House in midterms since World War II is 27 seats; only twice (in 1998 and in 2002) has the White House party actually gained House seats in midterms. Add in a likely Republican advantage in redistricting prior to 2022 (enhanced by the fact that the GOP will totally control the process in Florida and Texas, which together will gain five House seats), and history would suggest that Democrats have an uphill path to retaining their majority.

Some fresh analysis from Kyle Kondik at Sabato’s Crystal Ball shows how many Democratic House districts could be in peril. Using data comparing House results in the last four midterms (2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018) to the previous presidential cycles, Kondik suggests a substantial number of Democratic incumbents in competitive districts need to be on high alert:

Of the 1,325 races in our collection of results, roughly half (659) featured presidential party incumbents. On average, their performance fell by six percentage points from the presidential year to the midterm, or 12 points in terms of margin. Just to put that in perspective, 44 House Democrats won by 12 points or fewer in 2020. 

But even though a goodly number of incumbents may be vulnerable, the risk of losing competitive seats goes up significantly if they are open:

[In the last four midterms] there were 80 open seats defended by the president’s party. These kinds of seats often end up as the best targets for the nonpresidential party in midterms: Close to half of them, 35, flipped to the nonpresidential party, and the presidential party lost an average of 9.9 points of voteshare in these districts from the presidential to the midterm (or about 20 points in terms of two-party margin). 

So the odds of the House flipping to the GOP could grow steadily every time a Democratic House member announces a retirement. Just two (Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona and Filemon Vela of Texas) have retired so far, but it’s early, and adverse redistricting is often a prime reason for House members to hang it up.

Barring some change of plans, another House Democratic member already planning to retire (if not from Congress, then from her leadership position) is Nancy Pelosi, who will not seek reelection as party leader in the next Congress, as part of a commitment she made to restive members of her caucus in 2018. She will have personal reasons to hope for the maximum harvest of legislative achievements this year and next. But if she hands over her gavel to Kevin McCarthy, you can expect a quick halt to any Biden-administration legislative priorities until at least 2025.

Watch Democratic Retirements for Clues About House Midterms