House GOP Worries About ‘Mass Exodus’ Of Frustrated Members

Andrew Harnik/AP
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Following a rash of retirements, House Republican leaders are scrambling to get something done legislatively to convince other frustrated members not to toss in the towel in a tough political environment.

It’s not much fun to be a House Republican these days. President Trump has repeatedly taken potshots at their conference. Primary challenges burble on the right. Congress has been unable to pass much meaningful legislation in spite of unified control of Washington. Every trip home means an earful both from liberals furious at their support of the president and conservatives irate they’re not doing enough to support his agenda. And members who haven’t seen real competition for years face tough races due to Trump’s deep unpopularity.

That weighs heavily on Republicans who are on the fence about returning.

“The jury may be out for some folks. … Some days it feels discouraging,” said Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV), who told TPM he was likely to run for reelection but admitted his final decision in March was “a long ways away.”

“I can see where people would be discouraged as members of the majority when some days it seems like they’re fighting the Senate and sweeping generalizations even made by the administration that don’t even apply to the House,” he said, pointing to the failure of Obamacare repeal. “I don’t know of anybody who thinks that anything about election 2018 is going to be an easy walk. And Republicans love intramural [fighting], so there’s every reason to think there’s going to be a robust intramural period for some time.”

Four House Republicans from swing territories already announced they’ll leave Congress this year, including three in the past week: Reps. Dave Reichert (R-WA), Charlie Dent (R-PA) and Dave Trott (R-MI). Dent’s announcement lamented the “increased polarization and ideological rigidity that leads to dysfunction, disorder and chaos” in the House. Republicans concede that the seat opened up by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s (R-FL) retirement is likely gone for their party. And while numerous strategists say this wave of retirements has already crested, they warn that the next one could be a doozy if they can’t get some big things done before the end of the year.

“There are a number of people, plenty of whom we don’t even know about yet, who are torn” about running again, said one national GOP strategist involved in House races. “Whether there’s measurable progress on tax reform the next 30 days will be determinative. If we get to November 1st and it looks like tax reform isn’t happening, I think there’ll be a mass exodus.”

“It’s a disaster if it doesn’t happen,” conservative Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) warned, referring to a failure to make meaningful progress on tax reform. “That has an effect. People like me who are here for the cause, if we see no hope for the cause, which in my case will never happen, that would have a terribly damning effect on our stamina here.”

Other conservatives offer similar warnings.

“If we don’t perform, sure, you’re going to see more resignations just because they don’t want to see the wrath of the voter. It’s real. If we don’t get it done, having the majority can no longer be taken for granted,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-NC) told TPM on Wednesday. “There’s more talk about the frustration of not getting things done than I’ve heard in a long time. … If you can’t get something done, why stay in the fight?”

Strategists say that frustration is as least as big a driver for members considering retirement as the threat of a tough race next year. As one put it, “Most people who are looking at retiring aren’t retiring because they’re scared. It’s because Congress sucks and they wanted to get stuff done.”

Those in charge of keeping Congress in GOP hands insist they’re not worried about the recent spate of retirements, pointing out fewer members have quit than in past years (though it’s still very early).

“Retirement numbers are still well below the historical average and we’re confident the recently opened seats will remain in the Republican column,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt told TPM.

A number of members in targeted districts whose names were mentioned as possible retirement targets guaranteed that they’re running again. Reps. Leonard Lance (R-NJ), Pete Roskam (R-IL), and Pete Sessions (R-TX) were among the members who told TPM they were definitely going to run. Most of the swing-seat Republicans who pot-stirring Democratic operatives suggest might leave, including that trio, have hired campaign staff and are raising big money for reelection.

The one Republican strategists agree should be on retirement watch is Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), who was term-limited out of his committee chairmanship and is weighing both a Senate bid and an outright retirement. Upton’s spokesman has been telling reporters that “At this point retirement is not in the cards,” far from a hard-and-fast denial.

Retirements often come as surprises, and tend to cluster after holiday breaks. The first round usually happens right around now after members get back from their month-long August recess. A larger number tend to bow out after the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. A final wave comes in early spring of the election year, as members have to decide before campaign filing deadlines whether or not to run. Once a member makes up his or her mind it’s not easy to dissuade them, say the people whose job it has been to do just that.

“I’ve been there. There’s not much you can do to persuade somebody to stick around in a brutal environment other than to appeal to their sense of patriotism and commitment to their caucus,” said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2012 and the brutal 2014 election.

Israel, a former Democratic rising star, left Congress early partly because he was sick of fundraising and the toxic political environment.

“Every month I get at least a handful of emails from former colleagues on both sides of the aisle asking questions about my process in deciding to retire, and I think that’s very telling. That suggests potentially a much higher number of retirements in this environment as opposed to others,” he said.

Former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (R-NY) said there’s “a caution light on” for Republican leaders bracing for more retirements — and said Washington’s toxicity has shortened political careers much like higher injury rates have shortened NFL players’.

“I like incumbents to run for reelection in most instances, not open seats. But there’s going to be attrition,” he said. “And in today’s era in the astroturf of politics people are wearing out faster than they did in the grass era.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cameron Joseph is Talking Points Memo's senior political correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He covers Capitol Hill, the White House and the permanent campaign. Previous publications include the New York Daily News, Mashable, The Hill and National Journal. He grew up near Chicago and is an irrationally passionate Cubs fan.
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