Republicans on the run: Retirements could be trouble for Trump and party

Republicans on the run: Retirements could be trouble for Trump and party
© Greg Nash

"When the president visited Utah last month, he said I was a fighter. I've always been a fighter. I was an amateur boxer in my youth, and I brought that fighting spirit with me to Washington. But every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves.”

With those words, Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchOrrin Hatch Foundation seeking million in taxpayer money to fund new center in his honor Mitch McConnell has shown the nation his version of power grab Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Utah Senate votes to scale back Medicaid expansion | Virginia abortion bill reignites debate | Grassley invites drug execs to testify | Conservative groups push back on e-cig crackdown MORE (R-Utah) became the latest member of Congress to announce that he will not be seeking another term. The spate of recent retirements led to speculation about a widespread exodus by Republicans from Trumpland.

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It is first important to note that, of the 38 GOP members of Congress planning to retire (or having already retired), 13 are planning to seek another political office (or have new roles in the Trump administration). Likewise, some members of Congress are retiring in the wake of personal scandal including Reps. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdLawmaker seeks to ban ex-members from lobbying until sexual harassment settlements repaid Former Texas lawmaker Blake Farenthold resigns from lobbying job Congress sends bill overhauling sexual harassment policy to Trump's desk MORE (R-Texas), Joe BartonJoe Linus BartonGOP trading fancy offices, nice views for life in minority Privacy legislation could provide common ground for the newly divided Congress Texas New Members 2019 MORE (R-Texas), and Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksArizona New Members 2019 Cook shifts 8 House races toward Dems Freedom Caucus members see openings in leadership MORE (R-Ariz). In other words, a good number of the retirements seem to be clearly related to personal considerations and cannot be attributed to a desire to seek refuge from a chaotic presidency.

 

However, even if we only look at the remaining retirements that number would exceed the average number of total retirements per party (11 members) per Congress since 1974 according to data gathered by Roll Call. In order to better understand why this Congress seems to be an outlier, it is helpful to look at what the political science literature has to tell us about why and when individual members of Congress opt to retire.

Jennifer Wolak, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, posited in 2007 that members of Congress pay attention to the political environment when deciding whether to hang up their hats. Wolak notes “rates of retirement are strongly influenced by context — not only the climate on Capitol Hill, but also the trends in the national political environment.” 

This evidence would suggest that Republican members of Congress could be taking stock of political climate — a president under investigation, a party pursuing publically unpopular legislation, etc. — and deciding that they would rather invest their time in other ventures or, perhaps, sit comfortably on a beach somewhere.

It is also important to briefly address the number of retirements on the Democratic side of the aisle. There are 17 Democrats retiring as of this writing, a number that exceeds the norm. However, nine of these Democrats are seeking (or already assumed) another political office. Additionally, you have Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenVirginia scandals pit Democrats against themselves and their message The Hill's Morning Report — Will Ralph Northam survive? Identity politics and the race for the Democratic nomination MORE (D-Minn.) and Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersDemocrats seek cosponsors for new 'Medicare for all' bill Virginia scandals pit Democrats against themselves and their message Women's March plans 'Medicare for All' day of lobbying in DC MORE (D-Mich.) leaving as a result of personal scandal. Democrats might also be sensing a political environment — in the wake of election wins in Virginia and Alabama — primed for political advancement. History suggests that they might be right as it is usually the case that the president’s party loses seats in midterm elections.

While Republicans are retiring in mass, it is important to note that Republicans leaving these seats does not mean that those seats will turn Democratic. Indeed, in most cases, the Republican retiree will likely be replaced by another Republican (perhaps a younger Republican that will solidify that seat for years or even decades).

However, these retirements coupled with the president’s low approval rating, might suggest significant cracks in the relationship between the president and his party. Those cracks will likely become a massive chasm if the party has significant losses in the midterms.

Michael Artime, Ph.D., is a visiting assistant professor of Politics & Government at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.