House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) joins a record number of Republican lawmakers who will not be running for re-election in November.

What’s Driving Republican Retirements From Congress?

April 10, 2018
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by Anjali Tsui Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

Republicans are retiring from Congress in record numbers ahead of the midterm elections, opening the door for a potential Democratic takeover.

So far, more than three dozen Republican House members and three senators have announced that they will not be running for re-election in November — the highest number since World War II, according to the Brookings Institution. By contrast, only 17 Democrats are retiring.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) announced that he will be leaving Congress at the end of his term in January to spend more time with his family.

“I have accomplished much of what I came here to do and my kids are not getting any younger,” he said. “And if I stay, they are only going to know me as a weekend dad.”

Although Ryan helped push through a $1.5 trillion overhaul of the tax code in December, he has struggled to advance much of the Republican Party’s legislative agenda — from repealing the Affordable Care Act to entitlement reform.

His departure adds to the uncertainty that the Republican Party faces as it attempts to maintain its majority in Congress.

Democrats are attempting to gain 23 seats in the House and two seats in the Senate in November to secure a majority in either chamber.

Some Republicans — like Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Penn.) — say they are bowing out due to mounting frustrations with President Donald Trump’s leadership and the GOP’s struggles to pass bills despite a majority in Congress.

“Somebody needs to stand up and say, ‘This is not our party. This is not behavior that we should condone. We shouldn’t be OK with this. This is not normal,’” Flake said in an interview for the FRONTLINE documentary Trump’s Takeover. “For the long term, I’m very concerned about the direction of the party.”

Flake, who has served in Congress for 17 years, is a fiscal conservative and opposes same-sex marriage and abortion. Yet, he has become one of the most vocal critics of President Trump — especially on issues like immigration.

Corker, who announced his retirement in September, has frequently clashed with President Trump and likened the White House to an “adult day care center.”

Charlie Sykes, a conservative political commentator and author of How the Right Lost Its Mind, said in an interview with FRONTLINE that the departure of long-time Republicans will have a lasting impact on the party.

“You’re seeing an entire group of political leaders and veterans looking at the Republican Party and saying, ‘You know what? There’s no future for me in this party anymore. I don’t belong to this party anymore,’” he said.

At least a dozen Republican House members are running for higher political office. A number of congressmen in their 80s are also retiring from safe Republican seats, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas).

Others, like Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) and Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), are leaving in the wake of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations that have affected both sides of the aisle.

“For a lot of people, Washington is just not an attractive place to be these days,” said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies American public opinion. “Partisan polarization is greater than it has been by any number of measures.”

Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said the November election will be a “referendum on Trump” and his policies like tariffs against China and the border wall.

The Republican Party’s rules limiting committee chairmanships may be another factor spurring House members to retire, experts say. Since the 1990s, the GOP has banned House members from serving as committee chairs for more than three consecutive terms.

Representatives like Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), all nearing the end of their third terms as chairs of the House financial services, judiciary and science committees, respectively, have all cited committee term limits as one reason for leaving Capitol Hill. Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), who is at the end of her third term as the House Budget Committee’s chair, will be retiring to run for governor.

While the number of incumbent retirements marks a record for Republicans, the record for all of Congress was set in 1992 when 45 Democrats and 27 Republicans left office, according to Brookings. This paved the way for the Republican Party’s historic takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994.

It’s still unclear whether the number of retirements this year will eclipse the mass exodus of 1992. But experts say that the wave of Republican retirements will give Democrats an edge in the upcoming midterm elections.

Bowman noted that generic ballots, which ask voters to pick a party they intend to vote for, indicate that the Republican Party is “significantly behind.” That may be motivating Congress members to retire, she said.

Twelve of the 36 open Republican seats in the House of Representatives are vulnerable to a Democratic takeover, according to the Cook Political Report. These include districts in Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Mexico and Washington.

“All the hard data points in the right direction for a Democratic takeover,” said Kamarck from Brookings.

Kamarck says that the special elections that have occurred since 2016 provide evidence of an “anti-Republican” trend. Among special elections held for state legislatures last year, 14 seats went from Republican to Democratic compared to three that switched from Democratic to Republican.

In a special federal election in Pennsylvania last month, 33-year-old Democrat Conor Lamb, a former Marine, narrowly defeated Rick Saccone, a Republican who supported tariffs, received an A rating from the National Rifle Association and was staunchly anti-abortion. Lamb won the district, which elected Trump by a 20-point margin, by rallying support from steel workers and unions.

Kamarck, who is tracking every congressional candidate, says Lamb represents a growing number of moderate Democrats who stand to gain popularity in battleground districts in November.

As for the Republican Party, Flake fears that Trump’s election will have a long-term impact on the GOP and its ability to capture votes in an increasingly diverse America.

“The narrative that has been spun is Trump was the only one,” he said. “I just don’t buy that. I think it poisons the well for future elections. And that’s what I’m concerned about … that’s why I’m not running right now.”

04/11/2018: This post was updated after Speaker of the House Paul Ryan announced he was retiring from Congress.

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