Let’s Talk About How We Talk About House Retirements

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 11, 2021 · 10:00 AM EDT

Welcome to a redistricting cycle, where the routine is more complicated. 

Typically, members announce they aren’t seeking reelection, political journalists produce long lists of people mentioned as contenders for the open seat and the race begins. In a redistricting cycle, however, it’s not clear what the district will look like after the new lines are drawn or even what number the district will have for the next decade.

In March, Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick announced she will not seek re-election in Arizona’s 2nd District. And Democratic trauma surgeon Randy Friese promptly announced his campaign. But it’s not entirely clear what the seat will look like for the 2022 elections. 

According to 2019 estimates from the Census Bureau, the district might need to gain some constituents to keep up with population growth, but Arizona is likely to gain a 10th district due to reapportionment, so the geography of the seat could change, perhaps significantly. And there’s no guarantee that it will remain the 2nd District. That’s why it’s important to not automatically label potential candidates as 2nd District contenders and to understand how geography impacts their decision to run. 

Ten years ago, GOP Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona announced his Senate campaign in February of the off-year. Former Republican Rep. Matt Salmon wasted little time and declared his candidacy for the open 6th District race about a month later. 

In the end, after a competitive primary and less competitive general election, Salmon was elected to the 5th District, without switching races. The newly drawn 5th was made up entirely of territory from Flake’s old 6th, according to Daily Kos Elections. But due to population growth over the preceding decade, the remaining population of Flake’s district was drawn into the new 4th and 9th districts. Because Arizona added a ninth congressional seat due to reapportionment, the seat was renumbered from the 6th to the 5th during the redistricting process.

Later in the 2012 cycle, Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey announced she was not seeking reelection in California’s 6th District, which spanned about 1,600 square miles in the northern Bay Area. Democrat Jared Huffman ran successfully to succeed her, but in a dramatically different district. Geographically, the district still included Sonoma and Marin counties but reached all the way north to the border with Oregon, spanning nearly 13,000 square miles. And the seat was renumbered to the 2nd District. 

Overall, those seats in Arizona and California were two of 10 open seats around the country that received a district number from the one left by the outgoing incumbent. 

By early April 2011, a similar time point to this cycle, not many House seats had opened up. Along with Flake, GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg announced his Senate candidacy in Montana. Since Big Sky Country maintained a single, at-large district, there weren’t any redistricting implications.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico announced his Senate candidacy and Rep. Shelley Berkley did the same in Nevada. Even though Nevada gained a seat during the reapportionment process following the 2010 census, Berkley’s 1st District didn’t change dramatically, geographically or by number, and Democrat Dina Titus won the open seat.

This cycle, just a handful of members have announced they will not seek re-election. Along with Kirkpatrick, Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela of Texas, Republican Jody B. Hice of Georgia, and Republican Tom Reed of New York have announced they aren’t running for reelection to the House in 2022. GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin just announced he's running for governor in New York.

None of their decisions appear to be directly related to redistricting, at least in part because new congressional maps are delayed by the U.S. Census Bureau’s delay in transmitting necessary data to the states. When that happens, and states start to draw and finalize new lines, more members will head for the exits. 

But the lack of departing members is going to change. 

In the 2012 cycle, the handful of members announcing their exit plans in the spring of the off-year blossomed to 39, according to Vital Statistics on Congress. Going back further, 35 members didn’t seek reelection in 2002, 65 didn’t run in 1992 and 40 declined to run in 1982. Of course, not all of those were redistricting related, but it was certainly a factor for some.  

Remember, like California Republican David Dreier a decade ago, some incumbents are going to wake up to see their district obliterated in a new map. Or some members would rather leave than run against a fellow incumbent in a difficult primary or general election.

The bottom line is that some of the rote reporting about races could use a little extra care, caution and specificity in a redistricting cycle, particularly when it comes to the dynamics of open seats.