Politics

House retirements pile up in California as Democrats scramble to keep control of Congress

Key Points
  • Five House Democrats from California have joined a wave of U.S. lawmakers retiring or seeking another office, while GOP Rep. Devin Nunes has departed to run former President Trump's social media company.
  • While November's midterms are not expected to be competitive in most of those districts, the lawmakers' departures could open the door for more candidates from underrepresented communities.
  • Democrats have set their eyes on Nunes' seat, which will lean blue under a new congressional map.
Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-CA), speaks during the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence annual World-Wide Threat Hearing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, April 15, 2021.
Tasos Katopodis | Pool | Reuters

Former GOP Rep. Devin Nunes and five other California House members have announced they are calling it quits, adding to an incumbent exodus from Capitol Hill in the run-up to the midterms this year. 

Experts said the departures will have little effect on the makeup of the state's delegation to the House after November. Still, the multiple exits, including several longtime House members, could open the door for candidates of underrepresented communities to seek office.

"It doesn't look like it will shift anything major for either party in California," said Michael Li, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy program. "But without some strong incumbents that have the advantages of name recognition, it will be easier for candidates of certain communities to win a district if it's open." 

Forty-two House members representing 23 states have announced their exits from Congress in recent months as they either retire or seek another office. That number doesn't include one currently vacant seat. 

Among the departures in California are five longtime-serving Democrats, including Reps. Karen Bass and Jackie Speier. Nunes left office last month to become the CEO of former President Donald Trump's social media company, leaving his seat empty. He is the only state Republican to announce he will not seek reelection, so far.

Some members may be bowing out because their districts have become more competitive under California's new congressional map, which was redrawn this year by an independent commission as part of the decennial redistricting process. 

Democrats may be leaving amid concerns the party faces the prospect of losing the House majority. President Joe Biden's sagging approval ratings, congressional Democrats' struggles to pass key legislation and a historical trend that points to the president's party losing ground in the midterms are seen as their main obstacles to retaining control.

To be sure, some House members are simply choosing to seek other political offices or, like Nunes, have accepted positions outside of public office. 

Others could announce their departure before November — or in the coming weeks before the state's March 11 candidate filing deadline

The six recently announced departures in California may not change much in the campaign for House control, however. Nearly all open seats lean Democratic. The party appears likely to keep a majority in California's House delegation, according to an analysis from elections forecaster FiveThirtyEight. 

But the departures could mark a change for underrepresented communities by giving candidates from those groups a more viable chance of winning a House seat. 

"Now that people are beginning to retire and leave Congress, windows are being opened," said Christian Arana, vice president of policy at Latino Community Foundation, an independent Latino advocacy nonprofit based in California.

Democrats target Nunes' seat

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Nunes, 48, an ardent Trump supporter, left behind a district that is "sure to get plenty of attention" during the midterms, according to John Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College. 

Nunes' Fresno-area seat looks likely to flip to Democrats. If the district goes blue, it would give Democrats a small boost in their uphill bid to defend their House majority.

The newly redrawn 21st District, which was originally the 22nd before redistricting, transforms to a 16 percentage-point Democratic advantage from a 11 percentage-point Republican tilt, according to the analysis from FiveThirtyEight. The new 21st District was also labeled "likely Democratic" in an analysis from forecaster Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

Nunes would have had trouble holding the seat, according to Pitney. "It would have been a very rough reelection race for Nunes," he said. "He's one of the least-liked Republicans among Democrats. They all remember his role in defending Trump." 

Nunes, who served in Congress since 2003, was one of Trump's most loyal supporters in the House. As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee from 2015 to 2019, he led an investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election that concluded there was no evidence of collusion with Trump's campaign.

Nunes also defended the former president during the first impeachment trial in 2019. Trump later awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom just two days before the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection, claiming the congressman helped to "thwart a plot to take down a sitting United States president" through the Russia investigation.

Nunes resigned almost a full year before his term ended. The state will hold a special election to fill his seat this summer, preceded by a primary election in April. Pitney said the special election for Nunes' current district will give Republicans a "much better shot than they would have under the new map" that debuts in November.

However, a Republican candidate will have to go head-to-head with longtime Democratic Rep. Jim Costa, who announced last year that he would run in the new 21st District. Costa has served in Congress since 2013 and represents the 16th District, which neighbors Nunes' seat in the central San Joaquin Valley. 

Costa will likely carry the new Democratic-leaning district, said Paul Mitchell, a political analyst and owner of the firm Redistricting Partners. "Costa is going to walk right into that district," he said. "It will be easy for any Democrat."

While California GOP Chair Jessica Millan Patterson acknowledged in December that Nunes' seat will "likely look very different" in the midterms, she said she expects her party to make gains on their 2020 showing.

"Throughout the entire state of California, California Republicans see a lot of opportunities," Patterson told San Diego-based KUSI News. "It might be new faces, but certainly [we see an] opportunity to increase our numbers and ranks throughout the state."

Democrats head for the exits

Los Angeles, CA - January 14: Los Angeles mayoral candidate Congresswoman Karen Bass talks about her policy position on homelessness during a news conference at the closed St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles, Friday, Jan 14, 2022.
Hans Gutknecht | Los Angeles | Getty Images

Democrats make up the bulk of House members who are retiring or seeking other political offices — not just in California but across the nation, as well. 

Out of the 42 U.S. House members not running for reelection, 29 are Democrats, according to the House Press Gallery.

Experts said the exits may speak to a lack of confidence about the Democratic Party's standing, and members' disinclination to serve in the House minority status after four years in the majority.

While the president's party historically loses congressional seats in the first midterm, Biden and Democrats face additional challenges.

The president's job approval rating has plummeted to new lows in recent weeks amid concerns about his handling of the coronavirus and the economy. It sat at 44% in December, down 2 percentage points from September and 7 percentage points from April, according to a CNBC/Change Research poll. Last week, his rating dropped to 43% in a poll conducted by Reuters and Ipsos. 

The escalation of tensions at the Russia-Ukraine border, Democrats' failure to pass voting-rights legislation and the stalling of the highly touted Build Back Better domestic spending plan have exacerbated Biden's troubles.

"More Democrats have decided not to run than Republicans," said Eric McGhee, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. "That's usually because the party that is disadvantaged by the way of election trends tends to see more retirements. Incumbents see the writing on the wall and figure why risk it when I could just quit?"

Rep. Jerry McNerney, who represents the Stockton area, was the latest California Democrat to announce his retirement from Congress. Three other Democrats — Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard, Alan Lowenthal and Jackie Speier — announced their retirements months earlier.

Bass, the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, also will not seek reelection. Last year, she joined a crowded field of candidates vying to replace outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. 

Bass' newly redrawn Los Angeles-area 37th District is even bluer than it was under the old congressional map. It went from a 68-point Democratic lean to a 72-point edge, according to the FiveThirtyEight analysis. 

Bass in 2020 demolished her Republican opponent Errol Webber, receiving 85.9% of the vote. Three of the four candidates currently running in the district's June primary are Democrats. 

Speier's redrawn 15th District, currently the 14th District, has a 54-point Democratic lean, according to FiveThirtyEight. She was reelected in 2020 with 79.3% of the vote. But no Democratic candidates have entered the district's primary race, so far.  

Roybal-Allard and Lowenthal were drawn into the 42nd District under the new map. The seat will "almost certainly" be filled by a Democrat due to its "deep blue hue," according to the FiveThirtyEight analysis. The Long Beach-area seat leans 44 points Democratic, unchanged from before redistricting when it was the 47th District. 

Five of the six candidates running in the district's primary election are Democrats. 

McNerney's district is the only open seat that could be "somewhat of a tough fight," said Matt Rexroad, a Republican redistricting consultant. Democrats hold only an 8-point advantage in the redrawn 9th District, according to the FiveThirtyEight analysis. 

Democratic Rep. Josh Harder, who represents the state's 10th District, announced that he would run in McNerney's seat this fall. But Rexroad said the GOP stands a good chance of winning it.

"I think that district favors a Republican in 2022," Rexroad said. "There's going to be a lot of activity there."

Nevertheless, California Democrats feel that, in their state, they are in a position to buck the national trend, and could even see a net gain of "one to three seats" under the new congressional map, according to Pitney at Claremont McKenna College.

Recent analyses back up his assessment.

The new map creates 43 Democratic-leaning seats, seven Republican-leaning seats and two highly competitive seats, according to the FiveThirtyEight analysis. Aside from the loss of a seat in the Los Angeles area, the map's partisan breakdown is largely the same as the current congressional boundaries, FiveThirtyEight noted. 

Sabato's so-called Crystal Ball analysis had similar forecasts. It labeled 41 districts as "Safe," "Likely" and "Leans" Democratic, and eight districts as "Safe" and "Likely" Republican. Three districts fell into the "Toss-up" category.

A new wave of candidates

While the drama plays out regarding the House party majority makeup in the upcoming midterms, the numerous exits does give rise to hope for younger and more diverse political challengers.

That could further the increase in racial and ethnic diversity seen in the current Congress, which is considered the most diverse to date. 

A record number of House members identify as racial minorities. Out of more than 400 current House members, 59 identify as Black, 46 as Latino, 16 as Asian or Pacific Islander American and five identify as Native American, according to a Congressional Research Service report published last month. 

There is no complete demographic breakdown of California's House delegation available. But Peter Mitchell, a nonpartisan political consultant and analyst, specifically pointed to a potential increase in Latino members. 

"Latino candidates are powerhouses that are growing in terms of clout, credibility and sheer numbers in the state," he said. 

Latinos have been the driving force behind population growth in the state in recent years, and the new congressional map gives them more power to elect candidates of their choice. Their population in California grew by 11%, or about 1.5 million people, from 2010 to 2020, Census data showed. That has resulted in six additional majority-Latino congressional districts after redistricting, bringing the total in the state to 16, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

One prominent Latino seeking a Democratic House seat this fall is Robert Garcia, Long Beach's mayor since 2014. He is the city's first openly gay mayor and also the first Latino to hold the position. He is running in Roybal-Allard and Lowenthal's new, safely blue district. 

Garcia has the endorsement of LGBTQ group Equality California and served on the Latino Leadership Committee of Biden's presidential campaign in 2020. 

A few other Latino Democrats are running in the 42nd District against Garcia, including state Assembly member Cristina Garcia and political newcomer Nicole López. 

"[Robert Garcia] would be the first openly gay Latino from the state of California to represent us in Congress. That is the new generation. That is the new America that should be representing us at all levels of governments," said Arana of the Latino Community Foundation.

Latino Democratic candidates are also running in the special election for Nunes' newly redrawn district in April. They include Bryan Osorio, the mayor of the city of Delano, and Rudy Salas, a state Assembly member. 

A diverse group also hopes to succeed Bass in the 37th District, with two Black women running as Democrats: Sydney Kamlager, a state senator and member of the California Legislative Black Caucus, and Jan Perry, who served as a Los Angeles City Council member from 2001 to 2013. Other candidates are Daniel Lee, who was the first Black member of the Culver City Council, and Baltazar Fedalizo, a Filipino-American businessman. 

When lawmakers retire, it "creates a greater opportunity for aspiring public servants from different communities to run for office," said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, deputy vice president of UnidosUS, a nonprofit Latino advocacy organization.

"For the Latino community, the young community as well as many other communities of color, it creates an opportunity for them to diversify the state," she said.

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