Recent History Shows Senate Retirements Don’t Tell Us Squat

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 10, 2021 · 9:30 AM EST

Sen. Richard Shelby’s decision not to seek re-election in Alabama fueled multiple narratives: Republicans in disarray in the wake of President Donald Trump’s loss; a fatalist mentality that the GOP is destined to remain in the Senate minority. Just a quick browse through recent history, however, shows that it’s best not to draw too many conclusions from Senate retirements.

At 86 years old, Shelby's announcement should not have come as a surprise. Just a few months into the cycle, he’s already the fourth Republican to announce his retirement from the Senate (joining Ohio,s Rob Portman, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey and North Carolina’s Richard Burr) and at least two other GOP senators are on retirement watch lists (Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Chuck Grassley of Iowa), it’s easy to see how the Republican exodus narrative is built.

But even if more Republicans choose not to run, it’s important to remember that the GOP needs to gain just a single seat to retake the Senate majority in the next election. And history is on their side, as the national political environment in midterms often works against the president’s party.

It’s true that just a couple of months into this cycle, there are almost the same number of Senate retirements as there were in 2020. Republicans obviously lost control of the Senate, but it wasn’t because of those open seats. They successfully defended Kansas (Pat Roberts), Tennessee (Lamar Alexander) and Wyoming (Mike Enzi). Democrats defended their lone open seat, in New Mexico (Tom Udall).

In 2018, Republicans had three Senate retirements (Jeff Flake of Arizona, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Orrin Hatch of Utah) and Democrats didn’t have any. Yet Republicans still added two seats to their Senate majority.

Democrats Led in Retirements in ’16
In 2016, Democrats led Republicans in Senate retirements (3-2) and gained two seats overall. Democrats successfully held Nevada (Harry Reid), California (Barbara Boxer) and Maryland (Barbara A. Mikulski), while Republicans held open seats in Indiana (Dan Coats) and Louisiana (David Vitter).

Democrats got walloped by Republicans in 2014 when the GOP gained nine seats, but their problem was larger than open seats in the second midterm of Barack Obama’s presidency. Democrats lost open seats in Iowa (Tom Harkin), West Virginia (Jay Rockefeller), South Dakota (Tim Johnson) and Montana (John Walsh/Max Baucus), but five incumbents were defeated as well. That cycle Democrats successfully defended an open seat in Michigan (Carl Levin), while Republicans held on to Georgia (Saxby Chambliss) and Nebraska (Mike Johanns).

The 2012 cycle told a similar story. Democrats had more retirements than Republicans (7-3) and still gained two seats overall. They lost only Nebraska (Ben Nelson) and retained North Dakota (Kent Conrad), Virginia (Jim Webb), Wisconsin (Herb Kohl), New Mexico (Jeff Bingaman), Hawaii (Daniel Akaka) and Connecticut, which was vacated by Joe Lieberman, who caucused with Democrats. One of Republicans’ three open seats fell into Democratic hands for all intents and purposes when independent Angus King won Olympia J. Snowe’s seat in Maine, while the GOP held Texas (Kay Bailey Hutchison). Republicans also lost Indiana, which was an open seat after Dick Lugar lost the GOP primary.

GOP Solace in 2010
Republicans can find some solace in 2010, when they defended more open seats and still gained six seats overall. But the tea party movement, which has some similarities to Trump’s loyal followers this cycle, prevented the GOP from doing even better by nominating unpalatable candidates.

That cycle, Republicans successfully defended all seven of their open seats, including six created by retirements: Kentucky (Jim Bunning), Missouri (Kit Bond), Florida (George LeMieux/Mel Martinez), New Hampshire (Judd Gregg), Kansas (Sam Brownback) and Ohio, where Portman was elected to succeed George Voinovich. Republicans also held on to Utah, where Bob Bennett lost renomination.

Democrats lost four of their seven open seats, including Indiana (Evan Bayh), Illinois (Roland Burris/Obama) and North Dakota (Byron Dorgan), as well as Pennsylvania (where Arlen Specter lost in the Democratic primary). They held on to West Virginia (Carte P. Goodwin/Robert C. Byrd), Connecticut (Chris Dodd) and Delaware (Ted Kaufman/Joe Biden), albeit only because former governor and at-large congressman Mike Castle lost in the GOP primary.

Open seats are generally more difficult to hold, and retirements change the dynamic of the race, Shelby’s decision included. But just like in Ohio, an open seat doesn’t change the fundamental partisanship of a state. And the sheer number of retirements doesn’t tell us anything about how the cycle is going to turn out.