The Bipartisan Effort to Make Senate History

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 14, 2017 · 10:06 AM EDT

For all of the moaning and groaning about Washington being dysfunctional, members of Congress aren’t exactly tripping over each other to get out of town.

So far, all of the Republican and Democratic senators up for re-election this cycle seem intent on seeking another term. And if that trend continues, it would be historic. 

Over the last 60 years, at least five senators, on average, have retired, excluding appointed senators who didn’t seek election. In 2016, that’s precisely the number who didn’t seek another term. Two Republicans (Dan Coats of Indiana and David Vitter of Louisiana) and three Democrats (Harry Reid of Nevada, Barbara Boxer of California, and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland) retired.

Since 1959, when the Senate increased to 100 members, at least one senator has announced retirement every election cycle, according to the U.S. Senate Historical Office.

The 1964 election cycle came close to being the first without a retirement. Republican Barry Goldwater of Arizona was the only senator to not seek re-election, even though he hardly left political life. Goldwater was the GOP nominee for president that year and lost to incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide. (Goldwater later returned to the Senate after winning Arizona’s other seat in 1968.)

Going back further to 1914, since ratification of the 17th Amendment and the direct election of senators, there still hasn’t been a cycle without a retirement. In 1942, Republican Arthur E. Nelson of Minnesota was the lone, non-appointed senator to retire. 

Unless a senator changes course, 2018 will be the first time in at least 100 years that there hasn’t been at least one Senate retirement. Who said Republicans and Democrats couldn’t come together to make history?

The possibility is more than a nice footnote. Open seats can be important and change the math to a majority because well-funded and established incumbents tend to be more difficult to defeat. 

Retirements had the potential to devastate Democrats this cycle. Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Jon Tester of Montana, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana are likely the only Democrats who could hold their seats for their party, and they conceivably feel that obligation when deciding to run again. Of course, that doesn’t mean they will win. 

The Democratic senators could also feel additional pressure as the last line of defense with Donald Trump in the White House. Leaving could help Republicans gain more leverage in enacting a GOP agenda. 

Less than a quarter of the way through the election cycle and given the strong historical trend, it’s likely that at least one senator ends up not seeking re-election. So who is it going to be?

Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch told Utah voters in 2012 that he was in the middle of his final campaign. But the senator has apparently reconsidered and is preparing to run for an eighth term. Although, Hatch recently said that he might step aside if Mitt Romney wants to run for his seat.

At the beginning of the cycle, Sen. Dianne Feinstein was at or near the top of most retirement lists. The rumor mill certainly didn’t stop after the 83-year-old California Democrat had a pacemaker installed earlier this year. But Democratic strategists believe her status as ranking member on the Judiciary Committee could be enough to inspire her to run for a fifth full term. 

Some Republicans are hoping Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida opts for retirement instead of facing wealthy GOP Gov. Rick Scott. The governor hasn’t announced whether he’ll take on Nelson, but if he does, the senator would need to raise and spend tens of millions of dollars to defend his seat.

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey is up for re-election but he’s also scheduled to be on trial later this year on federal corruption charges. The senator is maintaining his innocence and is planning on running for re-election, but if the trial doesn’t go the way he is expecting, Menendez will face pressure to step aside and not risk the seat. But that might be more of a resignation scenario, assuming Democrats win the Garden State’s gubernatorial race this year.

And Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, also a Democrat, deferred an announcement on his re-election plans until sometime later this year. 

All of the potential retirements, except for Nelson in Florida, aren’t likely to change the outlook in those states. But there is still time for a surprise retirement to reshuffle the competitive map, and ensure the history of retirements continues to repeat itself.