Happy Trails: The Muted Effect of House Retirements


Generally speaking, if members of the U.S. House of Representatives want to keep their seats, voters are happy to oblige: since the end of World War II, the lowest reelection rate for incumbent House members was 79.3% in 1948, which was a huge Democratic wave year.

But those figures don’t include members who decide to leave office voluntarily: Some retire because of age; some retire to avoid certain defeat; and others retire because — perish the thought — they are tired of being a part of the United States’ dysfunctional government.

Tuesday’s announcement by Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC) brings the number of retiring members to 35 during this cycle, according to Roll Call’s helpful list. That already exceeds the postwar average of 34 retirements per House cycle, according to Vital Statistics on American Politics. Vital Statistics’ historical count does not include members who resigned before the end of their term; six members have resigned so far this cycle, bringing the total number of retirements to 41: 24 Democrats and 17 Republicans. And, almost assuredly, the list of retirees will grow.

Many members are retiring from seats that their parties are virtually guaranteed to keep. But some exits, like that of Blue Dog Democrat leader Rep. Heath Shuler (NC), will make it easier for the other party, in this case the Republicans, to capture the seat. Ultimately, the retirements so far have hit Democrats a little bit harder than Republicans; Team Blue is weakened in a handful of districts where the exit of predominately conservative members boosts Republican chances. Republican retirements do also open a few opportunities for Democrats, though those opportunities aren’t quite as obvious.

So far, the overall effect of these House retirements could help Republicans net a few open seats next November. That could be decisive if there is a very close race for the House, but it’s also not a huge, added advantage for the GOP. Nor are those potential gains anywhere near guaranteed.

A district-by-district analysis follows; members are listed alphabetically and are separated into four categories: members retiring at the end of the year; members who are retiring to run for the Senate; members who are retiring to run for offices other than the Senate; and members who have resigned from the House already.

House members retiring at end of year

  • Steve Austria (R-OH) — Austria was put in the same district as Rep. Mike Turner (R) and, after changes to the redistricting map made the district more favorable to Turner in this Dayton-area seat, Austria decided to step aside. In any event, a Republican — now Turner — is a big favorite here.
  • Dan Boren (D-OK) — Despite the state’s deep Red tint at the presidential level, the Blue Dog Democrat survives in eastern Oklahoma; Boren won this seat after a fellow Democrat, Rep. Brad Carson, unsuccessfully ran for the Senate in 2004. Had Boren decided to run again, we would have favored him in this race; we now favor the Republicans to take the seat, but with the right candidate Democrats can keep it.
  • Dan Burton (R-IN) — Burton just barely survived a primary challenge last year; whoever wins the Republican primary will succeed him.
  • Dennis Cardoza (D-CA) — California’s new, commission-drawn redistricting map prompted Blue Dog Cardoza to retire rather than run against his friend and fellow Democrat Rep. Jim Costa in the new 16th District or run in the now-open 21st District, both in central California. At first, this arrangement seemed to work out for Democrats, who had prized recruit state Sen. Michael Rubio prepped and ready to run for the 21st District. But Rubio decided against a bid, and Republicans have a top recruit of their own to run in that district, state Assemblyman David Valadao. If Republicans win the toss up 21st, this retirement might have indirectly hurt Democratic chances.
  • Jerry Costello (D-IL) — Democrats are hoping to pick up several seats in the Land of Lincoln after they drew themselves a favorable new House map, but part of that calculus is keeping all of their current seats. Costello’s retirement makes this seat, which stretches from the state’s southern tip to the St. Louis suburbs, more competitive; it’s a toss up at this early stage.
  • Geoff Davis (R-KY) — While Democrats held this northern Kentucky seat before Davis won it in 2004, Republicans should retain it in 2012.
  • Barney Frank (D-MA) — The liberal hero Frank saw his district changed by redistricting, which helped push him to retire. His exit prompted a new Kennedy, Joe III, to enter the family business of Democratic national politics, but Republicans have a long-shot chance at stopping him. We’re calling it a safe Democratic seat for now.
  • Elton Gallegly (R-CA) — Gallegly, who currently represents a district northwest of Los Angeles, knew that after redistricting there were two unpalatable options behind doors No. 1 and No. 2: challenge his fellow Republican, Rep. Buck McKeon, in a primary, or fight an uphill battle for the new, swingy 26th District. So he chose door Number 3, marked “exit.” The 26th District race should be pretty competitive, and it’s not clear that Gallegly would’ve been a markedly better candidate than the current crop of Republicans vying for the seat. So in the grand scheme of things his retirement probably doesn’t change much.
  • Charlie Gonzalez (D-TX) — The ultimate future of Gonzalez’s seat is up in the air because of the continuing court battle over the Texas House map, but his ultimate successor in whatever becomes of his San Antonio-area seat will be a Democrat.
  • Wally Herger (R-CA) — This inland, northern California seat should remain Republican.
  • Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) — Hinchey faced a somewhat close call in 2010 — he won by about five points — in this upstate district that borders northeastern Pennsylvania. The ultimate effect of his retirement is unknown because New York’s new congressional lines are also unknown; given that the state needs to eliminate two congressional districts, perhaps Hinchey’s seat will be chopped up and given to incumbents seeking reelection.
  • Dale Kildee (D-MI) — This is a safe Democratic seat.
  • Jerry Lewis (R-CA) — Another California redistricting casualty, Lewis’ retirement gave another Republican, Rep. Gary Miller, the opportunity to run in the leaning Democratic but competitive 31st District.
  • Brad Miller (D-NC) — Miller, whose work as a state senator allowed him to have input on the House seat he won in 2002, saw his Democratic gerrymander replaced by a Republican gerrymander in this Raleigh-area seat. Miller probably would have lost a reelection bid, and his retirement only makes it more likely that the seat will flip in the fall.
  • Sue Myrick (R-NC) — This district, which runs north and south of Charlotte, is safe Republican for now, but our friend Jonathan Kappler of the North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation notes that a strong Democrat could potentially make it competitive. Under the new North Carolina map, President Obama would’ve won about 45% of the vote in this district.
  • John Olver (D-MA) — With Massachusetts losing a seat, one of the state’s 10 Democratic congressmen was going to be axed by a new map. Olver’s retirement saved his colleagues.
  • Todd Platts (R-PA) — Platts, a supporter of 12-year term limits for members of Congress, is staying true to his beliefs and retiring after six terms. He will almost certainly be replaced by another Republican, despite the district becoming a few points more Democratic in redistricting.
  • Mike Ross (D-AR) — Two of Arkansas’ four House seats went Republican in 2010’s wave, leaving Ross as the only Democratic member of the delegation. His retirement makes Republicans the favorites to take this seat, although Democrats might be able to hold it.
  • Heath Shuler (D-NC) — This historically volatile western North Carolina seat was made more Republican in redistricting (much of liberal Asheville was moved to Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry’s 10th District), although this was always going to be tricky territory for Democrats. Shuler, a conservative Democrat and former NFL quarterback, was at best a 50/50 bet to keep this seat under the new map; now Republicans are favored here. Shuler’s retirement, along with those of Boren in Oklahoma and Ross in Arkansas, are probably the most damaging retirements in either party so far.
  • Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) — Woolsey, whose seat stretches north of the Bay Area, will be replaced by a Democrat.

Retiring to run for Senate

  • Todd Akin (R-MO) — Former Republican National Committee co-chair Ann Wagner is poised to capture this seat, though Rep. Russ Carnahan (D), whose own seat was destroyed in redistricting, might opt to run an uphill battle in this suburban St. Louis district.
  • Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) — Safe Democratic seat.
  • Rick Berg (R-ND) — Berg’s decision to run for the Senate after just winning this seat in 2010 could be helpful to Democrats; the Republican primary contest is a muddle, with one candidate controversially opting to skip the party’s endorsement process. Democrats have apparently settled on ex-state Rep. Pam Gulleson. An upset in this statewide, at-large North Dakota seat is possible, especially because North Dakotans, who are very likely to strongly support the Republican nominee for president, sometimes don’t mind splitting their tickets.
  • Shelley Berkley (D-NV) — Berkley’s bid for higher office should allow ex-Rep. Dina Titus (D) to return to the House in this safe Democratic seat.
  • Joe Donnelly (D-IN) — Hoosier State Republicans went after Donnelly in redistricting, making his seat a few points more Republican (though President Obama still would have narrowly carried it under the new map). The point of the map was to get Donnelly not to run; in that, it was successful, but Democrats are bullish on Army veteran Brendan Mullen, their preferred candidate in this race. Ex-state Rep. Jackie Walorski (R), who came within two points of beating Donnelly in 2010, is taking another shot at the district. Because of the remap she’s a slight favorite here, but because of Mullen’s potential, Donnelly’s retirement doesn’t sting as much as it could have.
  • Jeff Flake (R-AZ) — Republicans should have little trouble keeping Flake’s seat.
  • Martin Heinrich (D-NM) — Heinrich had a close race in 2010, and this Albuquerque-area seat could be competitive again in 2012 – although President Obama should do fine in New Mexico, which could help down the ticket. This is still pretty blue territory.
  • Mazie Hirono (D-HI) — Although some on the left fret that the eventual Democrat who wins the nomination won’t be as liberal as they would like, Democrats should nonetheless hold this seat.
  • Connie Mack IV (R-FL) — Florida’s new House map is coming into focus, but lawsuits loom. All told, this seat isn’t likely to be competitive.
  • Christopher Murphy (D-CT) — Republicans would love to capture this seat, which they held before the 2006 Democratic wave. Murphy’s retirement probably improves their chances, but this western Connecticut seat might be a bridge too far, especially in a presidential year.
  • Denny Rehberg (R-MT) — Montana, like North Dakota, only has one member of the House, and Treasure State voters also know how to split tickets. Rehberg’s retirement helps Democratic chances here; indeed, to get the 25 seats they need to recapture the House, Democrats might need to spring an upset here or in one of the at-large Dakota seats. That’s a tall but not impossible order, much like Democrats’ overall chances in the House.

Retiring to run for other office

  • Bob Filner (D-CA) — Filner, who is running for mayor of San Diego, occupies a safe Democratic seat.
  • Jay Inslee (D-WA) — Perhaps because Inslee is running for governor, the Evergreen State’s redistricting commission stretched this seat north of Seattle all the way to the Canadian border. It leans Democratic, but it also should be competitive. Maybe if Inslee had run the district would have been drawn differently, but that’s difficult to prove.
  • Ron Paul (R-TX) — Texas’ House seats are, as mentioned above, still up in the air. Former Rep. Nick Lampson (D) is running here, but it’ll probably be an uphill battle. Paul, who is running for president, will not return to the House.
  • Mike Pence (R-IN) — Pence, running to succeed Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, leaves a safe Republican seat behind.

Already resigned

  • Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) — If Giffords had been able to run for reelection, she would have been a shoo-in. Now that she has resigned to focus on her recovery from an assassination attempt, this seat is back to being a toss up. This district, currently numbered as AZ-8 but changing to AZ-2 under the new map, will get a few points more Democratic in redistricting. But an upcoming special election will be contested under the old lines, and it appears that Giffords will give her blessing to an aide, Ron Barber, to run as a caretaker candidate for her unexpired term.
  • Jane Harman (D-CA) — After Harman left to become president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Democrat Janice Hahn captured her Los Angeles-area seat in a special election. Under the new map, Hahn is battling fellow Democratic Rep. Laura Richardson for the new, Democratic 44th District.
  • Dean Heller (R-NV) – Heller was appointed to the Senate and resigned from his House seat; that’s why he’s on this list. He will run for a full term in the fall. Republican Rep. Mark Amodei won the seat easily in a September special election, and he should be safe going forward.
  • Chris Lee (R-NY) — Lee’s abrupt resignation after a personal scandal allowed Democrat Kathy Hochul to capture the seat. So, obviously, Lee’s resignation hurt Republicans. The future of the western New York seat is up in the air in redistricting.
  • Anthony Weiner (D-NY) — Weiner’s well-documented escapades on Twitter need no recapping here, especially since the words needed to describe them would set off spam filters in Crystal Ball recipients’ inboxes. Like Lee, Weiner gave his political opponents a victory through his antics; Republican Bob Turner won this seat in September. Again, the future of this New York City seat is up in the air pending the Empire State’s new district lines.
  • David Wu (D-OR) — Suzanne Bonamici (D) won the seat held by Wu, who probably did his party a favor by resigning. This seat is now safely in Democratic hands.


In the end, these retirements change the calculus in some seats, but, as should be clear from the seat-by-seat analysis, very few of them make a dramatic impact on the likely outcome of individual races.