More House Republicans Ask: Why Win Re-election When You Can Retire Instead

WASHINGTON — Congress’s six-week summer recess comes to an end on Monday, and a growing number of House Republicans have sent a clear message: They would much rather stay home.

More than a dozen Republicans of nearly every stripe — moderates and conservatives, relative newcomers and those with decades of seniority, two of the party’s 13 women and its only African-American lawmaker — have all announced their retirements in the past several weeks, underscoring a sour mood in the minority party and a sense of foreboding about its chances to win back the House in 2020. And party operatives believe there are many more departures to come.

Most of them have explained their planned farewells at the end of their terms in 2021 in personal terms, citing health and family concerns or a general sense that “it’s time” and declining to elaborate further. Only a few, such as Representative Will Hurd of Texas, faced a difficult re-election campaign.

But former lawmakers and several political strategists said the departures were more likely a consequence of two slowly dawning realities for Republican House members: Being in the minority is no fun, and their chances of ending Democratic rule next year are fading fast.

“Unless you’re really driven or have a specific purpose,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist based in Texas, “the idea of retiring from Congress could be really appealing.”

Ticking off a list of the job’s demands — crisscrossing the country at least three weeks a month, enduring political pressure, sacrificing personal time and upholding the drumbeat of fund-raising — Mr. Mackowiak added, “It’s a grind and it’s a beat down.”

A majority of those who have announced their retirements had safe seats in Republican districts and could have easily been re-elected. But the day-to-day realities of Democratic rule — already brought home by the 2018 midterm elections and the ascension of Speaker Nancy Pelosi — have left their mark.

Curtailed access to convenient meeting rooms, a schedule set by the majority and no control over the legislative agenda are only some of the perpetual complaints of whichever party is in the minority in the House.

“When candidates would ask me, ‘What’s life like in the minority?’ I would say, ‘It’s great,’” said former Representative Steve Israel, Democrat of New York. With a chuckle, he added, “But it’s not so great.”

The retirement numbers have not yet reached pre-2018 levels, when 34 Republican seats opened up in the lower chamber because of retirement, the highest number in decades. But the number of House departures announced this year — more than a dozen so far — continues a pattern that has resulted in the departure of about a third of the 293 Republicans who were serving in the House when Mr. Trump took office.

Mr. Israel, who announced his decision to retire from his heavily Democratic New York district while in the minority in 2016, said he did so in part because he intended to pursue interests outside of Capitol Hill.

The Republicans who are retiring are doing so knowing that they would be re-elected, he said. “They just don’t want to continue flying back and forth to Washington without getting anything done.”

That is a particularly bitter pill for experienced legislators like Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Representative K. Michael Conaway of Texas. Both men, who announced plans to retire during the summer recess, had already found themselves sidelined by Republican rules that bar the party’s lawmakers from serving for more than three terms as a committee chairman or ranking member.

“You lose some influence, and it’s less interesting to be in the chamber when you don’t have that position anymore,” said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “That’s expertise in how the chamber works leaving the chamber.”

Republican strategists and aides suspect that some of the impending retirements will come not only from members tired of Washington gridlock, but from other members facing the loss of prized committee power.

“Some of it is the minority and the nastiness, no doubt about it,” said Representative Don Bacon, Republican of Nebraska. But he added, the term limits were a factor behind the conference “losing great people.”

Chris Pack, a spokesman for the House Republican campaign arm, said that the self-imposed term limits “are why Republicans consistently have a healthy dose of turnover.”

Democrats, for their part, have been gleeful about the string of retirements, particularly in Texas where early filing deadlines have prompted earlier decisions than in other states. Exalting over what they have deemed “the Texodus,” some officials believe a number of seats in Texas — particularly ones like Mr. Hurd’s, which was decided by fewer than 1,200 votes in 2018 — are theirs for the taking.

“It’s clear the continued drain of having to defend their toxic, unpopular agenda and the misery of serving in the minority is what’s driving Washington Republicans to head for the exits in record numbers,” Cole Leiter, a spokesman for the House Democrats’ campaign arm, said in a statement.

On Capitol Hill, a rude awakening for less-senior Republicans who have never served in the minority may have also contributed to the number of departures. Nearly three-quarters of the Republican conference — 142 members in all — are in the minority for the first time in an institution where the majority carries all of the power, dictating which bills are considered and when, and what language can be debated and how.

For some Republicans, the prospect of sharing a ticket with Mr. Trump is unappealing, especially after the midterm elections last year, when the president’s incendiary speech and divisive style saddled candidates with a brand that alienated politically crucial suburban voters, especially women and those with college educations.

But for others, Mr. Trump’s place on the ballot could help preserve some newly vacant Republican seats and help whittle away at the Democratic majority. In 2016, he won dozens of the districts where freshman Democrats now hold seats.

“It comes at a time when the political tectonic plates are shifting,” said Ken Spain, a former communications official for the National Republican Congressional Committee, adding that Mr. Trump’s support could bolster Republican hopes in swing districts.

At the same time, serving in Congress in the Trump era offers Republicans a pair of stark choices: embrace the president and defend his policies and comments without reservation, or risk a brutal primary challenge from a Republican who is willing to.

Mr. Hurd was one of only four Republicans who joined Democrats this year in voting to condemn as racist Mr. Trump’s Twitter posts telling four congresswomen of color to “go back” to their countries of origin, though all but one of them were born in the United States and all are American citizens. And Representative Martha Roby, Republican of Alabama, survived four primary challengers in 2018 who were buoyed in part by her unfavorable comments about Mr. Trump’s 2016 candidacy.

The departure of conservative mainstays like Mr. Sensenbrenner, who notched a series of bipartisan accomplishments in his decades in office, will also most likely signal a broader shift in the characters of both the party and Congress, with the loss of institutional knowledge and bipartisan alliances.

“They’ll be replaced by Republicans, but they may be replaced by different Republicans than we would have seen 40 years ago,” Ms. Reynolds said, adding there would be a new approach in “both in working across the aisle and knowing where the levers of power are.”

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