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Sometimes Senators Just Retire. Don’t Read Too Much Into The Recent GOP Exodus.

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Last week, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt became the fifth Republican senator to announce he is not running for reelection in 2022. That’s the most Republican retirements from the Senate in 12 years — and it’s only March 2021! And notably, no Democratic senators have yet announced their intentions to hang up their spurs.

This has fueled some speculation that the GOP exodus is a sign that 2022 could be another disappointing election cycle for Republicans. There’s just one problem: History doesn’t bear that out

In election cycles since 1974, the party with the most Senate retirements has actually gained seats just as often as it has lost them. For every year like 2008, when more Republicans (five) than Democrats (zero) retired and Republicans lost seats accordingly, there’s a year like 2012, when a whopping seven Democrats retired yet the party picked up two Senate seats.

Retirements aren’t an indicator of election results

Number of senators who did not seek another term in election cycles since 1974, by party, and the net seat gain in the Senate for each election

Retiring Senators
Election Dem ocrats Rep ublicans Net gain
2022* 0 5

?
2020 1

3

D+3
2018 0 3

R+2
2016 3

2

D+2
2014 5

2

R+9
2012 7

3

D+2
2010 6

6

R+6
2008 0 5

D+8
2006 3

1

D+6
2004 5

3

R+4
2002 1

4

R+2
2000 4

1

D+4
1998 3

2

EVEN
1996 8

5

R+2
1994 5

3

R+8
1992 5

3

EVEN
1990 0 3

D+1
1988 3

3

EVEN
1986 3

3

D+8
1984 2

2

D+2
1982 1

2

R+1
1980 2

3

R+12
1978 5

5

R+3
1976 4

4

EVEN
1974 3

4

D+5

*As of March 15, 2021

Retiring independent senators are counted as members of the party with which they caucused. Does not include senators who died, resigned or lost renomination.

Sources: Roll Call, The American Presidency Project

The specific breakdown by party: Eight times between 1974 and 2020, more Republicans than Democrats retired from the Senate. Yet Republicans gained seats in four of those cycles and lost seats in four of them. And Democrats have out-retired Republicans 10 times since 1974, four of which saw Democrats gain seats, four of which saw Democrats lose seats and two of which saw no net change in Senate seats. Simply put, there isn’t a relationship between Senate retirements and which party has the better election cycle.

Granted, political scientists have found some evidence that politicians are more likely to retire when they think the political environment will be bad for their party. But the reality is politicians make really bad pundits — they’re no better at predicting the likelihood of which party will win an election than anyone else. And as we’ve seen, if politicians do retire because they’re pessimistic about their party’s chances, they’ve guessed wrong as often as they’ve guessed right.

Nevertheless, Republicans still might not want many more senators to follow Blunt and his fellow retirees to the exits. That’s because senators running for reelection perform a few points better at the ballot box than newcomers, although the advantage of being an incumbent has declined in recent decades. So in swing states like North Carolina and Pennsylvania, the retirements of Sens. Richard Burr and Pat Toomey might indeed make it a tad harder for Republicans to hold those seats. The retirement of senators from safe seats, however, will make little difference: Republicans should easily hold Missouri (which former President Donald Trump carried by more than 15 percentage points in 2020) with or without Blunt, or Alabama (which Trump carried by 25 points) with or without retiring Sen. Richard Shelby. And even in light-red Ohio, the retirement of Sen. Rob Portman may not be enough to flip the seat to Democrats.

So don’t read the flurry of retirements as a canary in the coal mine. History shows that a flood of retirements doesn’t necessarily spell doom for a party, and wave elections (like 1980 and 2006) can happen even without a ton of retirements in the opposite party. Sometimes, senators are just ready to go home.

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