The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Democratic Party’s retirement wave will likely alter the party for years

Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) waves as he takes his seat on Capitol Hill before President Donald Trump's speech to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28, 2017. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
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Chicago Rep. Bobby L. Rush’s announcement that he will retire this year makes him the 24th House Democrat thus far to not seek reelection in 2022. The rush for the exits both portends well for Republican midterm prospects and will shape the ideological contours of House Democrats for years to come.

The conventional wisdom is that so many Democrats are leaving because they can read the tea leaves and don’t want to spend years wandering in a powerless minority. President Biden’s awful job approval ratings, combined with polls showing Republicans ahead in the congressional generic ballot, are consistent with this analysis. Since 1994, when the GOP won a majority in the House for the first time in 40 years, partisan control of the chamber has shifted only three times. It took Democrats 12 years to regain control after that debacle and another eight to return to power after their 2010 midterm wipeout. Older members surely look at that track record and reason they don’t want to spend another decade on backbenches.

More House Democrats will surely step aside as the new year progresses. Many states haven’t even opened filing to run for congressional seats. As that process unfolds, more members will decide not to return. Fifteen of the 41 members who didn’t run again for the House in 2012, the last election that followed a redistricting year, announced their decisions after Jan. 1. That suggests ten or more further departures are still to come from both parties.

Some of the vacated seats are prime targets for Republican takeovers. The Arizona district held by Ann Kirkpatrick, for example, has been redrawn to lean Republican. And the seat that Wisconsin’s Ron Kind is departing is a rural, White, blue-collar district that Donald Trump carried twice.

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Most Democratic retirees, however, are vacating seats that even a Republican tsunami couldn’t paint red. That means the successors to these members will be decided in Democratic primaries, injecting new blood into an aging Democratic caucus.

These fights will likely carry significant ideological implications. It’s no secret that progressives have increasingly won contests in safe blue regions. It will be telling if more progressive candidates, such as Pennsylvania State Rep. Summer Lee, beat out conventional Democrats in these seats. Lee, who is running to succeed retiring Pittsburgh Rep. Mike Doyle, defeated an incumbent state representative in 2018 as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Justice Democrats, a leftist advocacy group, has already endorsed Lee for her run this year. She would join the high-profile “Squad” of progressives if she wins.

The Democratic House caucus will likely be pushed leftward even if more establishment candidates win. The race to succeed retiring Louisville Democrat John Yarmuth is a case in point. So far, Kentucky state Rep. Attica Scott and state Sen. Morgan McGarvey are battling for the seat. Scott was a community organizer who soundly defeated a 34-year incumbent Democrat in 2016. Her campaign website lists her progressive bona fides, from her commitment to “health justice” to “marijuana justice” (she’s for legalization). Her establishment foe touts endorsements from Kentucky’s elite Democratic politics, including multiple unions, elected officials and the longtime former Louisville mayor. But McGarvey is also campaigning as “a progressive champion for Kentucky” who wants to “tackle the existential threat of climate change” and “end generational poverty.” If he wins, he will have to keep leaning leftward to fend off the sort of progressive primary challenges that toppled other establishment Democrats in recent years.

Then there is the contest to succeed retiring Long Beach, Calif., Rep. Alan Lowenthal. The race is shaping up to be a battle between progressive state Assembly member Cristina Garcia and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia. The mayor has been endorsed by Gov. Gavin Newsom while the Assembly member emphasizes her prior role as a community organizer who “crashed the good old boy’s network.” Cristina Garcia may be more in the progressive outsider mold, but either candidate can be counted to back the bulk of progressive legislative priorities.

Democratic retirements are thus likely to lead to two outcomes: increasing Republican chances of winning a secure majority, and pushing the Democratic Party further to the left. That, in turn, will increase pressure on Biden to follow suit, as progressives angry over the apparent demise of the Build Back Better bill are already urging him to use executive action to advance their agenda. Those calls will only increase as congressional progressives increase their numbers.

Bobby Rush got his start in public life as a radical who helped found the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. Sixties-style radicalism quickly fell out of vogue, but 21st century leftism seems to be on the rise. As the great Bob Dylan once sang, “The times they are a changin.’”