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Redistricting and Retirements Will Send Shockwaves Through Washington


A wave of retirements and redistricting could spell trouble for the Democrats in the 2022 midterms.

A few weeks ago, we discussed how several upcoming special elections will soon impact the margin of power Democrats currently hold in the U.S. House of Representatives. Those shifts, while meaningful given the close party margins in the chamber, could be slight in comparison to the total upheaval voters might see after the 2022 midterm congressional elections.

As a reminder, every two years one-third of seats in the U.S. Senate and every single one of the 435 seats in the U.S. House are up for grabs. President Joe Biden will be in the middle of his first term and his name will not be on the ballot. (Hence the term “midterm election.”)

President Biden’s agenda certainly will be on the minds of voters, however. In fact, normally U.S. voters are fairly hard on the sitting commander-in-chief’s party. Historically, the party that controls the White House normally loses seats during a midterm election. According to Politico, in the House alone the president’s party loses an average of 26 seats in a first-term midterm election. (Democrats currently hold a three-seat advantage in that chamber.)

In 1994, after President Bill Clinton’s first two years in office, Democrats lost 52 seats in the House, for example, and eight in the Senate. In 2010, President Barack Obama and Democrats lost 63 House seats and six Senate seats. President Donald Trump’s record was mixed. In 2018, Republicans gained two Senate seats, but lost 40 in the House. President George W. Bush was one of the few presidents to defy history. Republicans improved their margin by eight in the House and two in the Senate in the 2002 midterm election.

But history is not the only sign indicating that the federal legislative branch will be very different in 2023 when members of the next Congress take the oath of office.

Retirements Are Rolling In

As noted in our column a few weeks ago, seven lawmakers who were elected last November to serve in the U.S. House already have left office or passed away. That includes former Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who is now serving as vice president, and a handful of House lawmakers who are now working in the Biden-Harris administration. Those seats have been filled, or will be filled, well before the November 2022 elections.

According to Ballotpedia, another 11 House lawmakers have announced their intention to retire after the current session of Congress adjourns at the end of 2022. This list includes five Democrats and six Republicans.

While that number sounds fairly balanced, as The New York Times has noted, the five Democrats who are retiring all come from competitive, or so-called toss-up, districts, meaning it is not clear which party will win them next year. Politico put the House Democratic retirements in an even harsher light. Its reporters said, “Democrats’ most-tested warriors are walking out before the battle.”

Times reporters Reid J. Epstein and Patricia Mazzei said the early exits could be a bad omen for Democrats. They wrote, “An early trickle of retirements from House members in competitive districts is often the first sign of a coming political wave. In the 2018 cycle, 48 House Republicans didn’t seek re-election – and 14 of those vacancies were won by Democrats.” They concluded, “Republicans are salivating over the prospect of reversing that dynamic and erasing the Democrats’ six-seat advantage.”

Over in the Senate, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is breathing a bit easier. The exodus from the upper chamber thus far has been all on the Republican side.

Five GOP senators – Richard Burr of North Carolina, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio, Richard Shelby of Alabama, and Roy Blunt of Missouri – all have said they will not run for reelection. According to the election prognosticators at Cook Political Report, at least three of these seats are toss-ups. Democrats very well could take back some prime Senate space from the Republican party in the 2022 election. (Cook does not yet have ratings available for the House seats that are up for grabs.)

New York magazine’s Ed Kilgore concluded, “2022 actually doesn’t look bad for Democrats in the upper chamber.” Additionally, the elections website FiveThirtyEight noted, “[T]he 2022 Senate map doesn’t force Democrats to compete on red turf nearly as much as the 2020 map or killer 2018 map did. In fact, no Democratic senators are running for reelection in states won by former President Donald Trump in 2020, while Republicans are defending two seats in states won by President Biden.”

And while we are only one-fourth of the way through the 2022 cycle, the number of Senate retirements already exceeds what we saw during the 2020 election cycle. Two years ago, three Republicans and only one Democrats decided not to run for reelection. (Thirty-six House members made the same decision in 2020.) There were three Senate retirements in 2018 and 52 in the House.

The Redistricting Wrinkle

Retirements are not the only worry on party leaders’ minds. As Democratic strategist Kevin Walling explained in The Hill, “Every ten years, Members of Congress often face an existential threat to their reelection that is mostly out of their hands: redistricting.” With new U.S. Census numbers out, some state policymakers are about to redraw U.S. House districts. And this could spell trouble for dozens of incumbent House members, especially those who are members of the Democratic party.

First, the new Census count means some states will lose congressional seats while others will get an additional voice in Congress.

Specifically, Texas will gain two House seats while Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, and Oregon each gain one. California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia each will lose a seat. Automatically, a single House lawmaker in each of these states will lose his or her job.

While headlines have focused on the Democratic states that are losing ground, election analyst Charlie Cook said, “There was a much smaller shift than expected: only seven seats shifted between states, not the ten some estimates suggested.”

Still, those words might be little solace.

As The Times reporters Epstein and Mazzei wrote, “Republican legislators control redistricting in key states where they can draw boundaries in their favor. Reapportionment alone – with red states picking up additional seats – could provide Republicans the seats they need to control the House.”

Republicans do not control everything, however. According to Cook:

  • Republicans will draw congressional lines in 187 districts, down from 219 seats in 2011;

  • Democrats will draw the line for 75 districts, up from 44 in 2011;

  • Bipartisan commissions redistricting for 121 congressional seats, up from 88 in 2011; and

  • There are 46 districts (down from 77 in 2011) where legislative control is split between the parties – the two parties will have to work together in those states to create new districts.

There also is this wrinkle: not every state has to follow the Census for redistricting. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures:

  • 21 states explicitly require the use of Census data for legislative and/or congressional redistricting;

  • 17 states do not explicitly identify a data source for legislative and/or congressional redistricting;

  • Six states allow for the possibility of using other data sources for their redistricting, depending on circumstances; and

  • Six states don’t fit in any of the three categories above.

In Texas, for example, neither that state constitution nor state law “addresses the census in regard to congressional redistricting.”

In other words: get ready for a Lone Star State-sized brawl over congressional lines.

When Will The Redistricting Drama End?

It is likely that we are going to have to wait a bit longer than normal to see how the redistricting drama plays out.

Blame it on COVID-19.

As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) explained, the pandemic has delayed Census data delivery and analysis. After the 2010 Census, most states were able to start and even complete their redistricting work by July 2021.

We are now within two months of that target this year, and few states have started to redraw congressional lines. As a result, CRS warned that states could postpone redistricting deadlines, candidate filing deadlines, or even primary election dates. They also could seek judicial relief that gives them more time to do their work, or they could just use existing state legislative district maps for the 2022 election.

No matter what path that state policymakers decide, one thing is certain: the next Congress will look a lot different than this one.

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