Analysis: The effect of legislative retirements and uncontested elections in 2022

By: - July 11, 2022 8:00 am
Photo of campaign buttons saying Vote 2022. (Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

This 2022 election cycle has been marked by the retirement of more than a dozen state legislators  — a few under unusual circumstances that include, in one case, an indictment  — or in some cases, plans to seek a different elected office.  

Legislative retirements

The 14 retirements in the General Assembly —11 in the House, three in the Senate —are more than double those from the last election in 2020, when there were six, and nearly double that of the last redistricting cycle in 2012, when there were only eight. 

But this year still doesn’t hold the record for the greatest legislative turnover: In 2018, almost a quarter of  House members retired. 

Of the 27 retirements in 2018, 14 became candidates for other political offices in the same cycle. The remaining 13 were true retirements, with the incumbents retiring from political office.

In March, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, announced he would not seek re-election, citing a “recent, exciting change” to his personal life. The notice came after Kelsey was indicted in October on five counts of violating federal campaign finance laws. The other two retiring senators are Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville and Mike Bell, R-Riceville.

In  this cycle, only two announced candidacies for other offices: Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, who was elected as 24th District Circuit Court Judge on May 3, and former Speaker of the House Glen Casada, who lost his bid to become Williamson County Clerk when he was defeated in the May 3 Republican primary.

Most of the representatives who won’t return in 2023 have been  backbenchers, having not spent enough time in the legislature to build seniority and capture a committee chairmanship.  Rep. Eddie Mannis, R-Knoxville, is one of those, retiring after just one term in office. 

Uncontested House races

Democrats are leaving far more legislative districts uncontested than their Republican counterparts, as has been the case in most of the last decade’s elections. Nearly half of the House districts this cycle do not have a Democratic candidate, compared to only 14 uncontested districts by the Republicans — and most of the latter are in the Nashville and Memphis Democratic strongholds. 

The number of districts uncontested by the Republicans is remarkably stable over the past decade, ranging from a low of 14 this year to a high of 20 during 2020. Comparatively, the number of districts left uncontested by the Democrats swings from cycle to cycle, with a low of only nine districts during the 2018 “blue wave” to a high of 46 during the red wave of 2014. However, the number of House seats left uncontested by Democrats usually hovers between 30-40.

Many of the uncontested districts are not competitive in most scenarios, which certainly hurts candidate recruitment in those districts. Most of the seats uncontested by Republicans are found in deep blue Memphis and Nashville, while large swaths of rural Tennessee won’t have a Democrat in the race for a House seat. 

(Graph created by Lucas Brooks)
(Graph created by Lucas Brooks)

Uncontested Senate races

In the Senate, the number of seats up for grabs is higher. In both 2014 and 2016, more than half of Senate districts up for election did not have a Democratic candidate. While those mark the highest numbers of uncontested Senate races in the past decade, about 40% of the Senate seats up for election this year do not have a Democrat running either. The only year when the Democratic party left fewer uncontested Senate districts than Republicans was 2018. In the past decade, Republicans left fewer than three Senate districts uncontested each cycle. The 2018 high, with three uncontested seats, came from two Nashville Senate districts and one in Memphis. Without fail, at least one Senate district in Memphis is left uncontested by Republicans each cycle. 

Majority Secured?

Based on the number of uncontested seats by the Democrats, it’s fair to ask if Republicans have already secured their majority in both the House and the Senate for the next session. In the Senate, because Republicans face no opposition in six districts and they hold 14 districts not up for election until 2024, Democrats cannot flip the Senate even if they win every district in which they have fielded a candidate. 

With 45 out of 99 House seats uncontested, Democrats would be hard-pressed to win a majority, although it is not mathematically impossible. 

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Lucas Brooks
Lucas Brooks

Lucas Brooks is a second-year college student from Knoxville. He first became interested in politics after the 2016 election and maps state legislative election results on his Twitter @LucasTBrooks. In his free time, he loves to hike and cheer on the University of Tennessee Volunteers.