Why are so many Democrats leaving Congress? Is polarization to blame?

Senator Joe Manchin in an elevator.
Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) boards an elevator after casting a Senate vote, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington. Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via AP Images

The House speakership drama and the spate of Republican retirements have grabbed headlines lately, but another story in the nation’s capital is quietly unfolding: the exodus of Democrats from Congress, says Nick Beauchamp, associate professor of political science at Northeastern University. 

In terms of sheer numbers, Beauchamp, whose congressional election models have incorporated retirement data, suggests that 2023 so far doesn’t seem like an anomalous year for overall retirements. But Democratic retirements, he says, are up this year compared to the previous three election cycles — a fact that might be overshadowed by the GOP drama. 

“The media are sort of exaggerating the Republican retirements … but what’s really going on is there is a higher ratio of Democrats who are quietly retiring than Republicans,” Beauchamp says. 

News organizations may be overlooking the ratio of Democratic retirements because, Beauchamp says, “they’re more invested in the story of Republican retirements.” 

Headshot of Nick Beauchamp standing outside.
Northeastern Assistant Professor of Political Science Nicholas Beauchamp. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Overall, he says the Democratic retirements in the Senate are likely to be far more consequential than the Republican retirements in the House in 2024.

As of Dec. 7, there are 38 lawmakers — 31 representatives and seven senators — who are not seeking reelection. Of the seven senators, five are Democrats who are altogether retiring from public life, according to Ballotpedia. Of the two Republicans, Mike Braun, is running for governor of Indiana, and Mitt Romney’s future is uncertain.  

Among the Democratic retirements, U.S. Sen. Joe Machin’s is the most threatening to the party given his ability to continue towing the line in the now largely red state of West Virginia

On the House side, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the only speaker to be forced out of the role, is the latest high-profile lawmaker to not seek reelection. The announcement of his departure last week follows the expulsion of former Republican Rep. George Santos, who was ousted over ethics violations. Overall, 21 House Democrats are not seeking reelection compared to 10 Republicans. 

Representatives from both parties have offered theories as to what’s motivating the departures and what they mean. Viet Shelton, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, highlighted the “chaos and dysfunction dominating” the Republican caucus, while a Republican counterpart said that the Democratic resignations “make their party’s climb out of the minority even steeper.”

Research shows that congressional retirements are more likely to occur ahead of competitive elections — not in cases where reelection is all but certain, Beauchamp says.

Kevin McCarthy leaving an election meeting.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., outside a House Republican Conference speaker election meeting in Longworth Building. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

“When an incumbent retires and is replaced by a member of the same party, they tend to do less well,” he says. “But the other thing about the ‘incumbent effect’ is that it’s kind of exaggerated by the fact that when an incumbent anticipates that they’re going to lose, they tend to strategically retire.”

In 2018, the first midterm of Donald Trump’s presidency, the ratio of retirements was roughly 3-2 Republican to Democrat in the House, the most notable being former House Speaker Paul Ryan (there were zero Democratic retirements in the Senate, but three Republican). In 2020, the ratio was roughly 3-1 Republican to Democrat in both chambers, Beauchamp says.  

“That’s kind of strange because it suggests a big loss for Republicans, even though no one really knew what was going to happen in 2020,” Beauchamp says. “In some ways, that indicator was pointing towards a bigger Democratic win than people seemed to think.”

Then, in 2022, the retirement ratio was roughly 3-2 Democrat to Republican in the House, and 1-5 Democrat to Republican in the Senate.

“During midterms, there are generally more retirements from the party of the president as they anticipate hard races or losses,” Beauchamp says. “During presidential elections it’s less systematic, perhaps because it’s less easy to know how your party will do. But my prediction model does suggest that even controlling for whether it’s a midterm, more retirements means more likely losses for whichever party has more retirements.” 

Beauchamp recognizes that the reasons for retirement matter. There’s a big difference, he says, between quitting to pursue higher office, and leaving politics altogether.  

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at t.stening@northeastern.edu. Follow him on X/Twitter @tstening90.