Skip to content

House Retirements Drop

One of the biggest story lines of the 2008 elections was the large number of House Republican retirements and the multitude of competitive open-seat races that crippled the GOP’s efforts to regain territory lost in 2006.

Seven months into this Congress, however, there is not a single House Member in either party who is simply retiring from office next year.

Stretching back 12 years, this is the first cycle with no retirement announcement as of Aug. 1 in the off year.

Two years ago this week, then-Rep. Ray LaHood (Ill.) announced his retirement, becoming one of the eventual 23 House Republicans to call it quits in the 110th Congress and not seek higher office.

Currently, there are nine Members leaving to run for Senate or statewide office. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) became the latest last week when he announced he is running for Senate next year. While Kirk’s Democratic-leaning district will be difficult to hold for Republicans, so far swing seats like his are the exception and not the rule, since most of the Members leaving represent districts that are politically safe for their parties.

GOP strategists argue that one of the reasons for the lack of retirements on their side of the aisle is a renewed party unity, as Republicans have banded together to oppose the Obama administration’s ambitious agenda with issues such as the economic stimulus, global warming legislation and health care reform.

“I think there’s a greater degree and sense of purpose on the Republican side,— one GOP consultant said.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) echoed that sentiment.

“We have a common set of ideas about why we think we came to Washington and what still needs to get done,— Sessions said. “I think there’s a strong sense in our Conference that what we’re faced with is winning back the majority, and we need all hands on deck and everybody prepared and ready.—

But the new administration has also renewed energy among Democrats, who have far fewer reasons to leave now that their party controls both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Democrats fought so long to be able to move forward on their agenda. … That’s what they’re focused on doing this cycle, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for it,— a Democratic strategist said.

Still, the August recess has generally been a popular time for retirement announcements. Members return home and spend more time with their families, leading them to reassess and reflect on their career and future.

“All long breaks are always concerning, but we’ve talked to a lot of them. We feel confident that we’ll at least know who they are,— NRCC Incumbent Retention Chairman Mike Rogers (Mich.) said. “We feel pretty good that we have those relationships, that if those Members are having questions or concerns, that they are going to get ahold of Chairman Sessions or [Minority Leader John] Boehner [R-Ohio] or myself.—

Beyond ideology, there are more practical explanations for the lack of retirements so far.

One is that many of the Members most likely to leave left last Congress after Republicans lost control of the majority. Secondly, the smaller number of expected retirements this cycle is likely the calm before the storm of the reapportionment and redistricting that will take place in the 2012 cycle, which will no doubt force many Members into retirement.

In the 2002 cycle, during the last round of redistricting, 36 Members opted to retire or run for other office.

Former Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), an ex-NRCC chairman who retired last year, said the 2012 redistricting would be a big factor in limiting the number of retirements this Congress.

“This is the last two years of a redistricting cycle,— Davis said, asserting that many Members will decide to hold on for another two years and then leave. “You’ll probably see a ton of [retirements] next time.—

Davis noted that the Republican Conference is also largely populated by Members who have come to Congress in the past decade or so.

“Given the number of newer people who have come in the last couple of cycles, I think on average you’ll see fewer retirements,— he said. “I think you’ll get some. It’s still early.—

Davis also noted that the private sector market is not as good for Republicans looking to leave the Hill, although he noted that Democrats who are looking toward K Street could probably cut pretty good deals.

Kirk’s suburban Chicago district and the suburban Philadelphia district of Rep. Jim Gerlach present the GOP with difficult tasks to retain its control — and both are in very expensive media markets.

There could be GOP retirements in other competitive territory yet this cycle. Second-quarter fundraising reports confirmed that Reps. Mike Castle (Del.) and Bill Young (Fla.) are retirement possibilities. Castle has all but said he’s either retiring or running for Senate. Young raised $50,000 in the quarter, and even if he runs again and wins, the next Congress is likely to be his last.

Beyond Young, there is little chatter about potential retires. Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) is one possibility; the nine-term lawmaker told Roll Call in June that he won’t decide whether to run again until next year, like he always does.

Part of the Democrats’ strategy last cycle was to recruit strong challengers against veteran GOP incumbents with the hope that it would force them to opt for retirement rather than face their first difficult race in years.

Among those whom Democrats targeted were Reps. Ralph Regula (Ohio) and Jim Saxton (N.J.), both of whom retired. In addition, then-Reps. Debbie Pryce (Ohio) and Jim Walsh (N.Y.) decided to retire rather than to face rematches of the 2006 races they had barely won. Democrats won all four of those seats in November 2008.

This cycle, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee appears to have fewer targets for their forced retirement strategy. Castle is one and Young is another, as is Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).

Rogers said that for the most part, GOP leaders know which Members are staying put and those who are looking to move on. He admitted he has been unable to talk some Members out of leaving for other things. But he said there are others whom they have successfully walked back from the edge.

“We’ve had a lot of really good conversations, some we couldn’t,— Rogers said. “Some we’ve convinced, with all that’s going on and why they originally ran for Congress. I can’t think of a better time to be here and because we need their voices here.—