House Retirement Watch: If You Wait, They Will Come

by Stuart Rothenberg June 25, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

It seems as if every election cycle around this time I start thinking, “Where are all the retirements?” It’s mid-June, six months into the 2008 cycle, and there are only a handful of open House seats.

But is it so unusual that we now have only four House Members — Democrats Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), Tom Allen (Maine) and Mark Udall (Colo.) and Republican Duncan Hunter (Calif.) — retiring at the end of their current terms? Allen and Udall are running for Senate seats, while Gutierrez simply is leaving Congress. Hunter, of course, is running for president.

I went back over the past couple of cycles and found that things are a bit slower than they were in 2003 and 2005, but there is an explanation.

The May 20, 2005, issue of the Rothenberg Political Report identified 14 open or likely open House seats. The list included three “pure” retirements — Mike Bilirakis (R-Fla.), Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Major Owens (D-N.Y.) — and 11 Representatives who already were running for, or widely expected to run for, higher office.

The list of political ladder climbers included four who were running for the Senate — Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.), Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — and seven who were running for governor: Republicans Butch Otter (Idaho), Jim Nussle (Iowa), Tom Osborne (Neb.), Jim Gibbons (Nev.) and Mark Green (Wis.), and Democrats Jim Davis (Fla.) and Ted Strickland (Ohio).

The lengthy list of gubernatorial hopefuls in the previous cycle, compared with none yet this year, has nothing to do with President Bush, national polls or Congress.

A mere 11 states have gubernatorial elections next year, while 36 had gubernatorial contests in 2006. So far, only two incumbent governors whose terms end next year are not seeking re-election, and both of them (Democrats Ruth Ann Minner in Delaware and Mike Easley in North Carolina) are term-limited. The lack of good gubernatorial opportunities, then, is a significant reason for the fall-off in gubernatorial candidates this cycle.

The difference in House Members running for the Senate (four at this point in the previous cycle compared with only two now) is primarily a function of Senate retirements and opportunities.

By the end of April 2005, four sitting Senators had announced their retirements — Republican Bill Frist (Tenn.), Independent Jim Jeffords (Vt.) and Democrats Mark Dayton (Minn.) and Paul Sarbanes (Md.). Those open seats created opportunities for ambitious House incumbents, which explains some of the House retirements at this point in the previous cycle. This cycle, there is only one Senate retirement so far, Wayne Allard (R) of Colorado.

In the previous presidential election cycle, House retirements also ran a bit heavier, but nothing close to the 2005-’06 midterm cycle numbers.

At this point in 2003, the Rothenberg Political Report showed nine open House seats —of which only eight actually became open, because then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) eventually aborted his Senate bid.

Republican Reps. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Mac Collins (Ga.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.) were running for the Senate (even though the Georgia Senate seat was then the only one officially open), while four other House incumbents had made it clear they would not seek re-election: Nick Smith (R-Mich.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Doug Ose (R-Calif.) and Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). Toomey subsequently challenged Sen. Arlen Specter in the GOP primary.

Two other House incumbents announced Senate plans shortly after mid-June. Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D) announced at the end of the month that he was running for the Senate in Pennsylvania, while Rep. George Nethercutt (R) entered the Washington Senate contest at the very end of July.

Compared with the past two cycles, then, retirements are slower. But if history is any guide, I expect they will come, despite party efforts to encourage incumbents to seek re-election.

The House has averaged about 32 retirements per cycle over the past three cycles. Even if 2008 has relatively few retirements, we should still see at least 20 House incumbents give up their seats.

Since World War II, the lowest number of House retirements has been 20, in 1956. In the 1960s, House retirements generally ranged from the low 20s to the low 30s, but they increased dramatically during the 1970s and into the early 1980s, when they generally reached at least 40 per cycle. Then they fell, so that in 1984, 1988 and 1990 retirements ranged from 22 to 27 per cycle.

House retirements skyrocketed again in the anti-incumbent mood of the mid-1990s, falling back to the current level, in the low-to-mid 30s, from 1998 to 2006. There were 31 House retirements in 2004 and 2006, and 35 in 2002.

Surprisingly, GOP House retirements have greatly exceeded Democratic retirements over the past three cycles, with 61 House Republicans opting against seeking re-election, while only 35 House Democrats gave up their seats to seek other office or enjoy retirement.

More Republicans than Democrats also were defeated in primary or general election campaigns during the past three cycles (29 Republicans versus only 19 Democrats), giving the GOP some hope that, sooner or later, Democrats will have to worry about defeats and retirements.

But Republicans ought not to expect relief from the retirement trend to begin this cycle. The loss of the House, the party’s national standing and a handful of Republican incumbents with ethics problems are likely to combine to encourage GOP retirements, which is why veterans in potentially competitive districts, such as Reps. Rick Renzi (Ariz.), Ralph Regula (Ohio), Dennis Hastert (Ill.), Tom Davis (Va.) and Bill Young (Fla.), will receive so much attention about their plans.