KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) decision not to run for reelection next year pushes our rating for the West Virginia Senate race from Leans Republican to Safe Republican.
— Next door, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D, VA-7) is forgoing reelection in her Biden +7 seat to focus on a 2025 gubernatorial run. Her district now becomes a better Republican target, although we think Democrats are small favorites to hold it, at least for now.
— A flurry of other retirements across the board haven’t pushed us to reconsider other ratings, though some primaries may be consequential.
Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate rating change
Table 2: Crystal Ball House rating change
It’s that time of year
When the holiday season starts to approach during the odd-numbered years, that can only mean one thing for political nerds: congressional retirement watch.
As members shift from legislating to thinking about spending time with their families, Thanksgiving time is often when retirement announcements start to ramp up. The current cycle seems to fit nicely into that historical pattern. With several retirement announcements coming just within the past week or so, we thought we’d take stock of the landscape.
Last week, one of the bigger announcements came from the Senate side of Capitol Hill: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) ruled out running for a third full term. The Crystal Ball already had Manchin, a moderate Democrat who is now a political anomaly in his ruby red state, as an underdog. But now, Republicans have an even better chance to win Manchin’s seat for the first time since the 1950s (the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd occupied this seat for much of that time).
When Manchin was first elected to the Senate in 2010, West Virginia was still very amenable to down-ballot Democrats. Republicans, meanwhile, did not have much of a bench in the state and ran wealthy businessman John Raese, who was something of a perennial candidate — before his bouts with Manchin, he had lost races to Democratic Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Byrd. While Manchin entered that 2010 race as one of the most popular governors in the country, he had to sweat a bit during the campaign but ultimately won by a comfortable 53%-43%. In 2012, Manchin faced a rematch with Raese, but perhaps dissuaded by the 2010 result, national Republicans did not seriously target the race.
Though Manchin won by a landslide 24-point margin in 2012, the state’s presidential vote would set the tone for the rest of the decade. Up the ballot, Mitt Romney won West Virginia by an even bigger 27-point margin and became the first presidential nominee to sweep all 55 counties. While Romney’s strength was surprising at the time, his showing represented a “new normal” for the state in presidential elections — Democrats have not carried any counties there since then and have lost the state by even more lopsided margins.
Manchin’s 2018 reelection was what one Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee contact described to us as the committee’s “most impressive” work of that cycle. While Manchin was able to secure a second full term, there were some stars that had to align. Although then-President Donald Trump was popular in West Virginia and made multiple midterm campaign trips to the state, Manchin at least did not have to run with an unpopular Democratic president, something that helped sink several red state Democrats in the 2010 and 2014 midterms.
Republicans also likely did Manchin a favor in 2018 by passing over their arguably strongest candidate, then-Rep. Evan Jenkins (R, WV-3), in favor of nominating state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (who is seeking the state’s open governorship this cycle). As Manchin defeated Morrisey by just over 3 points, it was clear that his coalition was becoming more nationalized: in Charleston’s Kanawha County, the most populous county in the state, he about matched his 2012 showing but became the first Democrat in generations to win without several traditionally blue coalfields counties.
This brings us to 2024. If Manchin tried to forge ahead with a reelection campaign, many of the factors that had aided him in past races would have been absent. As we have mentioned repeatedly, with Senate races falling increasingly along presidential lines, the type of crossover support he got in his 2012 effort seems like a pipe dream today. We don’t doubt that Manchin would run considerably ahead of Biden, but closing the 35 to 40 point deficit would make for an extremely difficult assignment in the context of modern federal elections.
In 2024, Manchin likely would not have been helped by weak GOP opposition, either. Earlier this year, national Republicans got their ideal recruit in party-switching Gov. Jim Justice, who will be termed out of his current job next year (a Republican for most of his life, Justice ran for office as a Democrat in 2016 then rejoined the GOP a year later). The only other major name in the GOP primary is Rep. Alex Mooney (R, WV-2), who is more of a favorite among grassroots and activist conservatives. But Trump endorsed Justice last month, and with Manchin out, the governor seems to have a clear path to the Senate. So with that in mind, we are moving our rating for West Virginia’s contest from Leans Republican to Safe Republican (we announced the decision on social media when Manchin made his announcement last week, but it is such an important development that we did not want to just gloss over it).
Considering his centrist tendencies, Manchin has repeatedly come up as a potential third party presidential candidate. In his retirement announcement video, he did not exactly dispel those rumors, although fellow retiring Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), who has been viewed as Manchin’s most likely ticket mate in such an effort, appears uninterested in a national third party run.
With Manchin’s departure, the biggest question mark hanging over the 2024 Senate landscape, at least from a candidate recruitment standpoint, is what Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) will do. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D, AZ-3) is almost the de facto Democratic nominee while Kari Lake, the GOP’s election-denying 2022 gubernatorial nominee, is a favorite for the GOP nod. We think that Sinema really doesn’t have a path to victory as an independent, but she could at least siphon off a not-insignificant share of votes. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Steve Daines (R-MT) reportedly has polling showing Sinema pulling more Republicans than Democrats, but basically every scenario of this race that we’ve seen points to a competitive race.
Meanwhile, Republicans have at least one clear pickup — West Virginia — and only need to flip one other seat to win 51 Senate seats (for an outright majority next year), assuming they defend all of their current seats. The GOP’s most obvious other targets remain Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in Toss-up races.
Moving one state over — and more into our neck of the woods — the votes have barely been counted from Virginia’s legislative elections last week, but its 2025 gubernatorial race is already underway. Political observers woke up Monday morning to a video from Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D, VA-7) announcing a gubernatorial run. Spanberger was an active player for Democrats during this last round of legislative elections, campaigning for candidates who were running in districts far outside VA-7.
Importantly, though, to focus on her statewide bid, Spanberger will not be seeking reelection next year. Before this week, we had VA-7 rated as Likely Democratic, as Spanberger, a veteran of three tough House races, has proven a formidable incumbent. As an open seat, we are downgrading VA-7 to Leans Democratic.
But the good news, from the Democratic perspective, is that, if Spanberger were going to vacate her seat, she’s doing so in the most advantageous way possible. Let’s consider Table 3, which contains VA-7’s vote in a selection of statewide races since 2008.
Table 3: VA-7 vote in recent statewide races
Since 2008, Democratic nominees for president have carried the district by small, but consistent, margins. Meanwhile, Republicans have only been able to carry the district in non-presidential situations. By stepping aside, Spanberger is allowing her successor to share the ballot with Biden, who will very likely be carrying the seat. Notice that in 2012 and 2020, when Virginia had Senate races in presidential cycles, the Senate vote was within a point or so of the presidential topline. If Spanberger was elected governor in 2025, a 2026 special election would ensue. Although Democrats have been performing well in special elections since last summer, special elections can still be volatile and it is hard to tell exactly what the environment would look like then.
While we’ll certainly have more to say about the 2025 gubernatorial race, for now, we could have two potentially competitive nominating contests to watch in this district. Democrats have considerably more of a bench in this district than they did before the Trump era. After the 2015 elections, only one Democrat in the House of Delegates represented a seat that was contained within VA-7 — after last week’s elections, they have five. In the state Senate, Democrats Jeremy McPike and Jennifer Carroll Foy recently won seats that cover the 7th’s holdings in Prince William County. Republicans, meanwhile, had a multi-way primary in 2022, so some familiar faces could emerge. Derrick Anderson, a former Green Beret who was the runner-up for the 2022 nomination, has been in the race since September, along with several other candidates.
While there have been a slew of other House retirement announcements that have popped up over the last few weeks, none of them have prompted us to change ratings.
Rep. Derek Kilmer, a Democrat who has represented the Olympic Peninsula since 2013, signaled that he would not seek another term. The news from Kilmer, who is 49, reminded us of a soundbite from a recent episode of the Pro Politics Podcast with Zac McCrary. Former Rep. Fred Grandy (R, IA-5) recalled some of the best advice he was given as a young congressman, “If you’re gonna go, you need to go before you’re 50.”
In any case, Kilmer’s exit gave state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz something of an off-ramp, as she was running for governor along with some other serious Democrats, most notably state Attorney General Bob Ferguson. She enters the now-open 6th District race as the clear frontrunner. In recent statewide elections, WA-6 has tracked closely to Washington state overall — after Biden carried it 57%-39% in 2020, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) carried it by 14 points — so it is not really a realistic GOP target on paper.
On the other side of the country, Rep. Brian Higgins (D, NY-26) is resigning his Buffalo-area seat in February. Higgins, a lower-key and more parochial member of the House, has been in office since 2005. While its possible New York may have a new congressional map in place for the 2024 elections, the imminent special election to replace Higgins will be held under the current lines – even if state Democrats get their wish and are able to freely gerrymander the state, it seems likely the basic character of this double-digit Biden seat would remain unchanged. We are keeping both NY-26 and WA-6 as Safe Democratic. That’s also the case for the districts of a couple of other recent Democratic retirees, Reps. John Sarbanes (D, MD-3) and Earl Blumenauer (D, OR-3)
On the Republican side, one primary we are monitoring is in suburban Phoenix. Last month, GOP Rep. Debbie Lesko, who was elected in a spring 2018 special election, announced her retirement. In a state that does not have runoffs, it seems possible that the winner of the already-crowded race to replace Lesko could claim just a small plurality.
The outgoing incumbent has endorsed current state Speaker of the House Ben Toma, but two unsuccessful 2022 statewide candidates are also in the race: Blake Masters and Abe Hamadeh. The former lost handily to Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) while the latter lost the open-seat race for state Attorney General by a few hundred votes and has since contested the legitimacy of the result. Former Rep. Trent Franks, Lesko’s predecessor who resigned in 2017 after reports emerged that he had pressed two aides to act as a surrogate to carry his child, is also trying to stage a comeback. Jacob Chansley, the so-called “QAnon Shaman” who was sentenced to roughly three and a half years in prison for his role in the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, also filed to run as a Libertarian. While we are not changing our Safe Republican rating for this seat, Republicans have to choose their nominee carefully. Biden’s 42.5% in this district was up a few points from Hillary Clinton’s 37%, and against Masters, Kelly only lost AZ-8 by 6 points last year.
Texas has one of the earliest filing deadlines in the country (this year, it is Dec. 11), which can prompt its members to announce their intentions earlier than they otherwise would. For this cycle, the state epicenter of retirements seems to be in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. Retirements there include Reps. Kay Granger (R, TX-12), who is termed out as the leading Republican on the Appropriations Committee, and Michael Burgess (R, TX-26), a veteran member of the Rules Committee. Both Granger and Burgess have districts just west of Dallas that would have given Trump about 58% in 2020 but gave Romney about 70% eight years earlier. Meanwhile, Rep. Pat Fallon (R, TX-4) announced that he would leave Congress to run for his old seat in the Texas state Senate, but then apparently reversed course in a confusing turnabout on Tuesday afternoon.
Reps. Ken Buck (R, CO-4) and Brad Wenstrup (R, OH-2) are two other recent Republican retirees. Buck, once known for kicking away a winnable Colorado Senate race in 2010 because he was too right-wing, has emerged as a critic of 2020 election denialism in the Republican Party.
The good thing for Republicans is that none of these aforementioned open seats should be all that hard to defend — AZ-8 is really the only one we’ve mentioned that we can imagine potentially coming on to the competitive board at some point this cycle, and even then we are still calling it Safe Republican for now. Meanwhile, Democratic candidate decisions so far this cycle have given them some tougher defensive assignments: The seats of Reps. Katie Porter (D, CA-47) and Elissa Slotkin (D, MI-7) are both Toss-ups as those members seek election to the Senate, and Spanberger’s VA-7 also is trickier for Democrats to defend as an open seat.
But surely there will be more retirements to analyze as the holidays approach.
Author: J. Miles Coleman