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With Minority Looming, Could More Republicans Be Headed for the Exits?

After the 2006 Democratic wave, 23 Republicans retired

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., says he will decide next year about running for an 18th term. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., says he will decide next year about running for an 18th term. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Life in the minority will be a new experience for most House Republicans next year. And many of them may not remember what happened the last time the GOP lost the House.

After the 2006 Democratic wave, about two dozen Republicans opted to retire the following cycle instead of languishing in the minority. And some in the party are worried about a repeat. 

“I don’t know if people have gotten over the shell shock yet, but there ought to be,” said Rep. Tom Cole when asked if there was concern about potential retirements.

The Oklahoma Republican knows firsthand the costs of losing the majority. He chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee in the 2008 campaign cycle and was tasked with convincing Republicans in tough districts not to retire. Twenty-three members ended up choosing to leave. 

Convincing someone not to retire is a difficult, but important, sell — especially after a huge wave of GOP retirements in the 2018 cycle opened the door to Democratic victories last month. 

“We saw how devastating that was for us this year,” Cole said. “Another round of that would be really bad.”

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Still early

While House Republicans are coming off an election that saw them lose 40 seats, a handful of them say it’s still too early to start panicking about 2020. 

“I don’t see any indication of that right now,” Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger said of potential GOP exits. “But yeah, it’s always a concern because you want to make sure you hold these districts.”

Kinzinger, who intends to run again, said there could be more chatter about retirements in the spring.

Close attention is likely to fall on lawmakers who survived close races last month, particularly in suburban areas where President Donald Trump is unpopular. And a few names are already starting to circulate.

A handful of Texas Republicans survived closer-than-expected contests. Rep. Pete Olson, who won re-election by 5 points in a district outside Houston, had been rumored to be eyeing the exit. But his chief of staff Melissa Kelly denied it. Rep. Kenny Marchant, who won his Dallas-area seat by just 3 points, said he “absolutely” is also running again, calling his recent victory margin an “anomaly.”

A handful of GOP ranking members who are facing their last term at the top of their committees could also be looking to leave. Republicans can only serve a combined six years as chairman or ranking member of a committee, and that influenced several retirements last cycle. 

Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot won re-election by 5 points in his Cincinnati district, and the next Congress will be his last as the top Republican on the Small Business Committee. (He served two terms as chairman and will be ranking member next year.) Chabot said he has no plans to retire and will run for re-election “as long as I’m healthy and my constituents continue to love me as much as I love them.”

One GOP strategist named Michigan Rep. Fred Upton as someone who could retire. Upton ran for — and won — a 17th term this year even though he stepped down as Energy and Commerce chairman at the end of 2016 due to term limits. Asked if he would run again in 2020, Upton said it was too early to make that decision.

“We don’t decide until next year,” the congressman said as he walked on to the House floor Wednesday. “I’m happy with what I’m doing.”

Upton is a former co-chairman of the moderate Tuesday Group and a leader of the Main Street on the Hill Caucus, which is tied to the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group that bills itself as the “governing wing” of the GOP. The caucus saw numerous retirements and losses this cycle, and more than a third of its members won’t be returning next year. After the 2006 Democratic wave, several Main Street members also retired.

Charm offensive

Sarah Chamberlain, the president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, said she was focused on recruiting unsuccessful Main Street members to run again. But she would soon be turning her attention to preventing Republican retirements.

She hopes to stress to these members that they will have financial support for their campaigns. Her group also plans to use results from suburban focus groups to develop a “suburban agenda” with pieces of legislation these lawmakers could run on.

“Even if I can save a couple from retiring, it’s a big success,” Chamberlain said.

Incoming NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer will likely be active in cajoling members on the fence to stay in office. The Minnesota Republican did not respond to a request for comment, but Cole said he had a similar task as head of the NRCC for the 2008 cycle.

Cole said the process involves checking with each delegation about potential retirees and hearing out those members’ concerns. He recalled a conversation with former California Rep. Elton Gallegly, who was weighing retirement. Gallegly told Cole about the taxing commute to and from the Golden State and estimated he made the trip 1,700 times while in Congress.

“I said, ‘Elton, I’m only asking you to get to 2,000 or so,’” Cole recalled with a laugh. Gallegly went on to win re-election in 2008 and 2010, and retired in 2012 after redistricting.

“You really do play to the loyalty of the team or what prospects they might have going forward, and you try and head it off early,” Cole said.

That’s a tougher pitch in the minority, which will be a new experience for roughly half of the GOP conference. Of the returning members, more than a hundred have never served in the minority.

“They’re going to figure out in the first three months it’s not nearly as much fun,” Cole said.

Correction 10:12 a.m. | Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated when Rep. Fred Upton relinquished his House Energy and Commerce chairmanship. It was after the 2016 cycle.

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