House Democrats hoping to project strength going into the 2022 midterms got two doses of bad news last week, with the high-profile retirement of Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos followed by the weekend shutout of all Democratic candidates from the runoff in the competitive special election in Texas’ 6th District.
The twin developments offered an opening to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which tied both occurrences to bad strategic decisions by their Democratic counterparts. The group also predicted a rash of new Democratic retirements as the GOP — favored by historical trends and a redistricting process largely controlled by party officials — picks up momentum heading into the midterms.
“House Democrats are starting to realize their majority is doomed,” NRCC spokesman Mike Berg wrote in an email to the media Monday morning. “And who can blame them?”
But Democratic strategists said Monday they see no cause for concern.
“The political environment isn’t to the point where you’re going to see a lot of these people run for the exits,” said Ian Russell, who served six years at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of House Democrats.
Still a bellwether?
Retirements and special elections are often seen as early indicators of a party’s prospects. Historically high numbers of House retirements in 2010 and 2018, the first cycles of Barack Obama’s and Donald Trump’s presidencies, for example, presaged swings in House control in those midterms.
And while it is exceedingly rare for a House seat to flip during special elections, off-season races can measure voter and donor enthusiasm. Jon Ossoff was not successful in trying to turn a House seat blue in 2017, for example, but his record-breaking fundraising heralded the Democratic momentum that returned the speaker’s gavel to Nancy Pelosi after the 2018 midterms. Ossoff went on, with colleague Raphael Warnock, to flip Georgia’s Senate seats in January, putting Democrats in control of that chamber.
But with redistricting ahead for nearly every House seat, special elections may not be the best predictor of the political climate next year, when Republicans need to net just five additional seats to take back the majority.
The demographic data state officials will use to draw congressional maps could be delayed until the fall.
Bustos, who headed the DCCC in 2020, is the fourth House Democrat to say they will retire after this cycle, joining Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, and Eddie Bernice Johnson and Filemon Vela of Texas. Others are eyeing runs for higher office, including Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who recently launched a Senate campaign. And Rep. Charlie Crist, a former Florida governor rumored to be considering another run for the office, has said he will make a “major announcement” Tuesday.
The tally so far is not outside the “ordinary course of business,” Democratic strategist Achim Bergmann said.
“If we were to see a couple of dozen Democrats retiring or moving up, wanting to run for other things, then that would absolutely play a factor,” he said. “But it’s just hard to tell right now without knowing what the lines are.”
Republicans anticipate there will be more Democratic retirements.
“Democrats know their job-crushing tax increases and failure to secure the border will cost them their jobs,” Calvin Moore, a spokesman for the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, said in an email. “No wonder they’re searching for every and any available option to avoid running for re-election.”
The Democrats are also not alone in making other plans.
On the GOP side, Texas Rep. Kevin Brady also announced his retirement in April. Ohio’s Steve Stivers is planning to leave office later this month to run his state’s Chamber of Commerce. New York’s Tom Reed said he will not run in 2022 after revealing his battles with alcoholism in response to a story about his behavior toward a female lobbyist on a fundraising trip. And four House Republicans — Jody B. Hice of Georgia, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Lee Zeldin of New York and Ted Budd of North Carolina — are running for other offices.
“The Republicans will crow about every retirement and the Democrats will do the same thing, and did the same thing when the roles were reversed,” Russell said. “But just remember Kevin Brady. Just remember that sometimes they’re old and just want to go home.”
Russell said Democrats can feel optimistic about President Joe Biden’s stable poll numbers, in contrast to the steep decline in popularity that Obama encountered after signing the 2010 health care law.
Republicans have nevertheless taken an aggressive approach in their determination of the House battleground. In February, the NRCC listed 47 Democrats on its list of initial targets of the 2022 cycle, partly in anticipation that the GOP would “win redistricting” with Republican-led legislatures drawing the majority of the new boundaries. On Tuesday, the NRCC added another 10 Democrats in states set to lose seats because of the census reapportionment.
Democrats’ target list, in contrast, included just 21 Republicans, with more names expected to be added as information about the redistricting process is released.
Some national Democratic strategists thought that conservative approach, combined with uncertainty about the district’s makeup next year, was one reason national Democratic groups declined to invest in the all-party Texas special election Saturday that resulted in an all-Republican runoff.
The district, which stretches from the Dallas-Fort Worth area into the surrounding rural areas, supported President Donald Trump over Biden by 3 points in November.
It was considered the best pickup opportunity for Democrats among a handful of special elections this cycle.
Republicans in the 23-candidate field received 62 percent of the vote to the Democrats’ 37 percent on Saturday. Republicans Susan Wright and Jake Ellzey advanced to the runoff to replace Wright’s husband, the late GOP Rep. Ron Wright.
The national media responded with headlines about Democrats’ dashed hopes in Texas. But local strategists said the outcome was not surprising.
“In no way is Congressional District 6 a bellwether for what is going on politically,” said Matt Angle, a Democratic strategist and consultant with the Lone Star Project. “That is a district that favors Republicans.”
Democrats had 10 candidates on the ballot. None of their top three fundraisers managed to pull in more than the low six-figures. Only two Democrats, third-place finisher Jana Lynne Sanchez, who was the 2018 Democratic nominee for the seat, and educator Shawn Lassiter, got outside support.
Sanchez benefited from $100,000 spent by Nuestro PAC, which works to turn out Latino voters, and Operation 147, a PAC formed in March to oppose Republican members of Congress who voted against certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Lassiter got $17,000 in support from a PAC called Elect Educators Everywhere.
But Angle said there was no reason to expect national groups to spend more on such a crowded race in a district that has historically favored Republicans. “The truth of the matter is national organizations are cold-blooded, and they should be,” he said.
Republican groups, on the other hand, threw hundreds of thousands of dollars behind the top GOP candidates. Ellzey, a commercial airline pilot and retired Navy fighter pilot who serves in the state House, had the most outside support, with a combined $354,000 in support from the American Patriots PAC and Elect Principled Veterans Fund offsetting the $260,000 the anti-tax Club for Growth spent opposing him.
Wright received $30,000 in support from the Club for Growth. She also received donations from committees associated with dozens of members of Congress, including $10,000 from E-PAC, the committee founded by New York Rep. Elise Stefanik to support Republican women.
Several of the GOP candidates also had high profile Republican surrogates working to turn out voters — not least among them Trump, who weighed in with a last-minute endorsement of Wright and later put out a news release seeming to take credit for her finishing first.
“We’re focused on protecting the House majority and defeating vulnerable Republicans who voted against COVID relief,” DCCC spokesman Chris Taylor said. “Meanwhile, Republican groups poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a Republican seat to ensure Trump’s candidate won.”
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.