A Wave of Congressional Departures on the Eve of a Highly Contested Election

Elections & Politics Policy Brief #115 | By: William Bourque | December 28, 2023
Photo taken from: www.democracydocket.com
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In the turmoil of the past year, a historic number of Members of Congress have decided to leave their posts at the end of their terms. Many are seeking election to other offices, but the majority are simply retiring from the body. A lack of bipartisanship and overall sense that Congress just doesn’t get enough done is what is pushing many long-serving lawmakers out the door.  One, of course, has already left the ranks, with Rep. George Santos (NY-03) being expelled in late November. Many of the members that are stepping down wielded significant power and authority in both chambers, and it will be incredibly interesting to see who fills that hole.

In the House, where far more members are taking flight, a vacuum on the right has opened up. The biggest absence is former speaker Kevin McCarthy, who will be leaving his post at the end of the year. House GOP sources said that McCarthy was unbearable as a rank-and-file member, clearly frustrated with having to sit and hold the same power as those who pushed him out of his speakership. McCarthy’s seat should be a safe Republican one, so he isn’t leaving his party in a crucial district. The ceding of power to the far right didn’t sit well with many other senior members, like interim speaker and Kevin McCarthy ally Patrick McHenry. McHenry was also the chair of the House Financial Services Committee, where he was one of the leaders in crypto regulation. He leaves behind a 20-year tenure in the House where he was, at one point, seen as a possible candidate for Speaker.

On the Democratic side, several Californian’s are vacating their seats to run for Senator—Adam Schiff, Barbara Lee, and Katie Porter are all vying for the Democratic nomination. Polls currently have Schiff with a slight lead over Porter, with Lee trailing both significantly. Also leaving the body from California is Representative Anna Eshoo, who is retiring after serving for 30 years. Her seat is considered a safe D seat and an open primary will take place in March to determine who will be running for the seat in November.

There are also a few members who are leaving to pursue municipal or statewide offices, with some notable ones being Abigail Spanberger (D-VA-7), Mike Braun (R-IN), and Jeff Jackson (D-NC-14). Spanberger, 44, is running for Governor in Virginia. She is running against Richmond Mayor LeVar Stoney for the Democratic nomination. Stoney has faced recent criticism in Richmond after a proposed casino, backed by Stoney, failed for the second time at the ballot box. Mike Braun, in Indiana, is facing off against Jennifer McCormick, a former state superintendent. Polls from August indicate Braun should win by double-digits. Jackson, a one-term lawmaker who rose to beltway fame via TikTok videos, was gerrymandered out of his district, prompting him to attempt a return to the statehouse as Attorney General. He faces several strong challenges in one of our races to watch next fall.

Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX-18) left office to run for Mayor of Houston, but has since filed for re-election following a loss. Jackson-Lee is known amongst House staffers for being an unforgiving and abrasive boss, often under fire for berating staff for no reason at all. She will likely be re-elected given the Texas gerrymander, but don’t be surprised to see a primary challenge. Also in Texas, Representative Allred is leaving his seat to run for Senate, challenging Sen. Rafael “Ted” Cruz. This race is likely to be closer than anticipated, as Cruz’s popularity in Texas has waned since he left the state for Cancun in the midst of disaster. Ken Buck, a freedom caucus member from Colorado, is also leaving, citing the inability of the body to make key decisions. Buck’s district will be a safe red seat in 2024.

This number of individuals leaving elected office to make headway in other offices or retire altogether is relatively unheard of. Many say that they are sick of the lack of legislation passed—while many in Republican circles say the infighting is what has driven them out. When Patrick McHenry and Kevin McCarthy first entered Congress, the Republican party was a much different party than we see today. Of course, McCarthy’s pride is what is really hurt here—no matter how much he categorically denies it. For others, the pursuit of higher office makes sense—the three Californian’s are all looking to cement their own legacies by capturing a Senate seat. But some are getting out of politics altogether, rare in a town where people grasp for power at every chance. As we enter the new year, look our for new faces emerging in key districts—as Democrats look to retake the House in what is due to be one of the most fearsome elections of all-time.

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