Senate Democrats returned to Washington to wield their newly expanded majority this week, but the specter of potential retirements in their ranks is already raising anxiety about their prospects in the next election.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) plans to run for reelection, he says, but Democrats are holding their breath waiting for Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to decide whether they will stick around for reelection battles in red states where they’ve shown surprising staying power. The suspense comes as national Democrats face questions about whether they will back newly independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema should she run for reelection in Arizona or throw their support behind her likely Democratic challenger, Rep. Ruben Gallego, who announced his run earlier this week.
“I devoutly and fervently hope they will run,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who added he’d been encouraging Manchin and Tester to stick around. “There’s no question they’re in really challenging states in a tough political environment.”
Both men said this week they were still weighing their decisions.
“To be honest with you, folks want me to be home,” said Tester, who added he’d make the decision in the first half of the year. “But they also want me to be here. So we’ll figure it out.”
One factor Democrats are aware of is that Tester’s lengthy commute to his farm in Montana is weighing on him. “You don’t win elections alone, you have to have a family that’s solidly behind you,” Tester said.
Manchin said on Monday he did not have a timeline for his decision. “I’m not being pushed in West Virginia,” he said.
Democrats attribute some of their surprising success in the midterms last year to their Senate incumbents running for reelection while many Republicans decided to retire. In 2022, Republican senators in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina retired, leading to more competitive races than Republicans wanted and the Democrats’ one pickup during a midterm election year that in the past has tended to benefit the party out of power.
“It’s their decision for what they want to do but clearly I’d love for all of our incumbents to run for reelection and I’m excited to make sure that they get reelected,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “If our incumbents are running, we’re going to hold the majority.”
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) announced her retirement earlier this month, setting up a potentially crowded Democratic primary to replace her and putting the seat more within reach for Republicans.
The announcement by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) last week that he would seek reelection was met with a sighs of relief, said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, by Democrats who were worried he could retire. “I’m so glad he’s on board, he’s a great senator,” he said.
Ten of the senators who caucus with Democrats who are up for reelection in two years are over 70 years old, including the 89-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), who told CNN she would decide whether to run for office again in the coming months. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an 81-year-old independent, said he would make an announcement about his future at the “appropriate time.”
Among the Democrats, Sen. Tammy Baldwin has not officially announced her plans but told a local news station in December she was “widely expected” to run again in Wisconsin. In Nevada, Sen. Jacky Rosen is also planning on running for reelection. In Pennsylvania, however, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., who is battling prostate cancer, said he is solely focused on that before he makes a 2024 final decision. “I just want to get through this,” he said on Monday.
Sen. Ben Cardin, 79, said he is undecided on running again in Maryland, while a spokesman for Sen. Angus King, a 78-year-old independent who caucuses with Democrats, answered an inquiry about whether he was running for reelection with a link to a local news story saying he is readying a campaign operation.
Brown said that he didn’t believe that a herd of Democrats would head for the exits, even if Manchin or Tester decided not to run. “What happened to Republicans last time is there was a little bit of a domino effect — [former senators] Toomey and Portman and North Carolina and Missouri,” he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be that this time, I’m not concerned about that at all.”
The new chair of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, Sen. Steve Daines (Mont.), said he believed even if Tester does not resign, Republicans will be able to run a strong race against him.
“There’ll be a real contrast there if he decides to run again,” he said, mentioning inflation, energy and the Second Amendment. National Republicans believe Rep. Matthew M. Rosendale (R-Mont.), whom Tester defeated in 2018, and Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) are eyeing the seat, although neither has announced their intention to run for it.
Although Republicans have far fewer incumbents up for reelection, Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) is one of them, and said Monday he has not yet made up his mind to run for his seat. Romney, 75, could face a tough GOP primary given his public breaks with Trump. Sen. Mike Braun’s retirement could also lead to a messy Republican primary in the red state of Indiana, where Rep. Jim Banks has announced he will seek the seat and the more establishment former governor Mitch Daniels is considering stepping in as well, over the objections of conservative critics including Donald Trump Jr.
Perhaps the messiest situation Democrats face in 2024 is how to handle the race in Arizona, where Sinema, who is an independent but caucuses with them, is up for reelection but already faces a challenge from Democrat Gallego. If Sinema decides to run again, it would set up a three-way race that would likely boost a Republican candidate. She is a key vote for Democrats’ narrow majority for confirming President Biden’s nominees and other issues.
Peters said it was too early to discuss whether the national party apparatus would back Sinema and had not spoken with her about whether she plans to run again yet.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Sinema an “excellent” senator but stopped short of committing to backing her. “She has done a lot of good things here, but it’s much too early,” he said.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seemed to enjoy the drama, praising Sinema and said he was looking forward to reading about how Democrats were answering questions about whether to back her.
“It is a big dilemma for the Senate Democratic majority to decide whether to support her or to support somebody running on the Democratic ticket,” he told reporters, with a smile. “I’m pretty sure you were asking a bunch of questions along those lines right before we came out here. I look forward to reading what answers, if any, you got.”