Why So Many House Republicans Are Retiring

Jan 13, 2018
Originally published on January 13, 2018 4:12 pm
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Congressional Republicans seem to be rushing to retire. There are a couple of reasons - one, a lesson from history that after a new president wins, their party usually doesn't fare well in the next election. The other reason could be the challenge of running amid the frequent firestorms set off by President Trump. Here's NPR's Kelsey Snell.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Congressman Charlie Dent is well-regarded on Capitol Hill. And he's often in the spotlight as an influential swing vote. But after more than a quarter of a century in public office, the Pennsylvania Republican has decided that it's time to retire. And at first, he gives a pretty standard answer why.

CHARLIE DENT: Certainly, my family felt that I should move on. They felt that way.

SNELL: But just under the surface is another reason that's becoming pretty familiar. Dent didn't want to spend the next 10 months talking about or defending President Trump.

DENT: You know, this campaign cycle, 2018, will simply be a referendum on the president. We'll be talking about him and his latest tweet or comment or an incendiary remark or whatever. So you're really not speaking about or talking about major issues.

SNELL: Dent has made it through difficult elections before. Like a lot of Republicans in districts where Trump is unpopular, Dent says the challenges seem insurmountable given the historic headwinds. Typically, the party that wins the White House one year loses dozens of seats in Congress two years later. House Speaker Paul Ryan acknowledged that challenge Friday at an event in his home state of Wisconsin.

PAUL RYAN: Historically speaking, if history's any guide, history says we should lose 32 seats in November. We have a 24-seat majority. So we have to buck history. And we know that we have a challenge in front of us to do that.

SNELL: The last time that Republicans faced an election this difficult was 2006. Ohio Republican Pat Tiberi talked about the challenges of that year while chatting with reporters outside the House chamber just as the buzzer sounded for one of his very last votes in Congress.

PAT TIBERI: It felt like you were, like, running uphill every day in terms of the environment. And that's how it feels now.

SNELL: That year, Republicans lost more than 30 seats in Congress. Tiberi eked out a win. But this time, he's not running. In fact, he left Congress this week to go home and run the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. Part of the reason this year is particularly challenging is that President Trump's approval rating is hovering below 40 percent. That has a growing number of Republicans deciding to leave Washington on their own terms rather than risk exiting on the losing end of a brutal campaign. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona says he looked at the odds and decided he didn't want to wade into a dirty fight to keep his seat.

JEFF FLAKE: I'm not leaving because I'm sour on the Senate or anything. It's just I didn't want to run the kind of race I would have to run to get re-elected.

SNELL: Instead, Flake has become one of Trump's chief critics within the GOP. Others are leaving because it isn't particularly fun to be in Congress if you don't have any power. Seven of the retiring House Republicans are committee chairs who are losing those coveted posts because of term limits. But not every embattled Republican wants to back down.

DANA ROHRABACHER: Well, you seem to get a couple of Republicans running for the hills, making what I consider to be a very frightened assessment rather than a courageous assessment.

SNELL: That's California Republican Dana Rohrabacher. He released a defiant statement bucking the trend. He says he's running, even if the race will be hard.

ROHRABACHER: You know, we should have the courage of our convictions. We believe in what we believe in. And we believe that's good for the American people. And I have confidence in those beliefs.

SNELL: Rohrabacher says there's nothing wrong with a good fight, and he's sticking around to see if he can come out on the winning end in November.

Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.