Does this spell disaster for the Democratic Party in 2022?

Congressman Ron Kind addresses the crowd at the grand opening ceremony while U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Regional Director, Tom Melius, looks on. Photo by Ketti Spomer/USFWS.

“The truth is I’ve run out of gas,” Rep. Ron Kind announced to reporters and stunned Democrats on Tuesday. “This will be my last term in office. I will not seek reelection.”

The Democratic Party moved quickly to spin the news, though it leaves the razor-thin Democratic Congressional majority even further imperiled in 2022, with Democrats in danger of losing a seat Republicans didn’t even bother to run against Kind for in 2016.

“I know he’s one of the districts that the Republican Party is coming after because they know Donald Trump won in that district,” said Jan Way of the Portage County Democratic Party. “I think they see it as an easy win and I hope they’re very wrong.”

Republicans were less circumspect.

“Congressman Ron Kind made the right decision to drift off into the sunset rather than face certain defeat next fall,” said Calvin Moore, CLF Communications Director. “CLF’s investment in 2020 made this an imminently winnable seat for Republicans and we look forward to ensuring this seat flips Republican in 2022.”

There are seven Democratic Party Congressional Representatives from districts Trump won in 2020. Rep. Cheri Bustos, from Illinois is another. She announced in April that she too will not be seeking reelection.

In Atlanta, a similarly unusual saga is unfolding. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, elected only last cycle, announced recently that she will not be seeking reelection either.

None of these refusals to seek reelection have mentioned bad polling, or concerns about winning. In fact, quite the opposite. Family obligations, religious reasons, health concerns- all have been floated while any claims to the contrary have been hotly refuted.

Rep. Ron Kind, still in the prime of his professional life, may indeed just be “out of gas”. What he isn’t out of, however, is campaign funds.

He started the most recent quarter with a war chest of $1.3 million. His closest Republican challenger, a former-Navy Seal who came within 3 points of beating Kind in 2020, doesn’t even have half that.

What Kind’s Republican challenger does have, is a potential political albatross hanging around his neck: Attendance at the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

While Derrick Van Orden says he left when it became clear the protest was devolving into lawlessness, he also used campaign funds to attend the event. Just how big of a political liability this is likely to be depends on any number of factors, not least of which is the fact that Republicans outnumber Democrats in the region.

Considering Kind’s campaign funds advantage, his reputation as a moderate Democrat who is friendly to the business community, and his opponent’s vulnerability, it is especially difficult to understand this decision.

Getting elected to high office isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap. That any incumbent would throw away the chance to run as an incumbent, which is far easier, is surprising because it is so rare.

One reason which would make sense, and make these failures to seek reelection completely understandable, is if these candidates are seeing their tenure’s doom writ large in internal polling numbers.

Are they quitting now to save themselves the experience of losing badly in the next election?

After all, losing an election takes just as much work, just as much help, and just as much money as winning one.

Incumbents facing certain defeat at the ballot box are faced with a choice: Spend the next year working themselves, and their families, into exhaustion and penury on the campaign trail over the next 14 months or quit while they’re ahead, leave on their own terms, and save themselves the headache.

Faced with this decision, early retirement from politics might seem the better part of discretion. Being a former Congressperson or Mayor has its advantages in the private sector. Any public servant worth their salt should be able to make as much, or more, money in the private sector.

Why wouldn’t they want to?

Politics isn’t what it was ten or even five years ago, to say nothing of what it might be like by the time the mid-terms roll around- or inevitably, the next presidential election.

Studious policy wonks like former House Speaker Paul Ryan and Rep. Ron Kind are becoming rare, on the verge of extinction. They populated C-SPAN, which no one ever watched or cared about. Few of us paid the least attention to politics et al unless our taxes went up noticeably, war broke out, or there was a sex scandal.

Ron Kind agrees: “I’m part of a dying breed in public service today in Washington and certainly in Madison — someone who tried to be reasonable, pragmatic, thoughtful, worked hard to try to find common ground with my colleagues, work in a bipartisan way to find bipartisan solutions for the challenges that we face.”

Kind is right: There is a new brand of politician in Washington, D.C.

They are neither experts on policy, nor a bit wonkish. They aren’t career politicians or obscure constitutional law scholars. They are hands-on, committed activists riding a post-Trump wave of grassroots progressivism. They are interested in far more than representing their constituents and balancing the budget: They’ve come to save the world.

They also command a great deal of social capital in the current environment and a massive fundraising reach. They know all about branding, marketing themselves, the power of viral snark. They are GQ; not HQ.

To compete with these incomers, stolid, below-the-radar, unremarkable public servants like Rep. Ron Kind will have to do everything they currently do, plus learn the dark new arts of social media and manipulating online trends and influencer culture.

It is possible that traditionalists like Kind simply can’t do this. It is also possible that he just doesn’t want to. Life in the public eye always meant a certain amount of scrutiny. In the internet age, it means doxxing, death threats, hacking, and protests in front of homes.

Kind, Bustos, and Keisha Lance Bottoms may be seeing the handwriting on the wall sooner than some of their fellow elected Democrats.

But what is the hand writing? Have Democrats like Ron Kind, Cheri Bustos, and Keisha Lance Bottoms been weighed in the balance by likely voters and found wanting?

If so, these elected officials are perhaps wise to walk away while they can still maximize the effectiveness of holding public office on their resume.

It is, after all, usually better to quit a job than to have been fired.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)