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As younger members of Congress leave, veteran members are trying to get back in

Some candidates seeking comebacks have been away for an extended time

Republican former Rep. Mike Rogers is running for Michigan's open Senate seat.
Republican former Rep. Mike Rogers is running for Michigan's open Senate seat. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — According to the narrative, House members are fleeing Capitol Hill because Congress is a miserable place to serve and work. But more than a handful of former members are trying to claw their way back to Washington, years after they left office. 

With the current political climate, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the number of House members not seeking reelection is higher than average. But considering the age of some of the members and the influential spots they’re giving up, it is striking how some young-ish incumbents near the prime of their political careers have decided to head for the exits. Even though we tend to focus solely on politics, they could also be leaving for personal reasons or seeing an opportunity to make more money elsewhere.

Thirty-nine-year-old Wisconsin Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher was considered a rising star in the GOP and a coveted Senate candidate, but now he’s leaving Washington altogether and not seeking reelection in the 8th District.

Washington Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers, 54, is one of the highest-ranking women in the House GOP as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and yet she’s not running again in her eastern Washington 5th District. Democrat Derek Kilmer, 50, her Evergreen State colleague, isn’t running again either.

Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger, 44, and North Dakota Republican Kelly Armstrong, 47, are both leaving the Hill to run for governor of their respective states. North Carolina Republican Patrick T. McHenry, 48, had a brief moment at the very top of the House food chain as speaker pro tempore and is now not seeking reelection at all. 

And yet more than a handful of former House members have seen and heard about the tone on Capitol Hill and still are running to come back to Washington. Unlike some members who lost or left in the past couple of cycles, these politicians have had some extended time away. 

Louisiana Democrat Cleo Fields, 61, left Congress in early 1997 after an unsuccessful run for governor in 1995. Now he’s running in the newly drawn 6th District after federal courts ruled that the Louisiana map used in 2022 violated the Voting Rights Act. 

Michigan Republican Mike Rogers, 60, hasn’t served in Congress in eight years, but he’s running for the open Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Debbie Stabenow. 

It’s also been more than a decade since Montana Republican Denny Rehberg left Congress after an unsuccessful challenge to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2012. But Rehberg, 68, is running again, this time for the 2nd District, currently represented by Republican Matt Rosendale. Jacob Rubashkin reported in Inside Elections that a private poll showed Rehberg leading a field that did not include Rosendale.

Two Indiana Republicans are on the comeback trail. Marlin Stutzman, 47, was elected to the House in a 2010 special election and served through 2016, when he lost a race for the Senate. Now he’s running in a competitive primary in northeast Indiana’s 3rd District, which incumbent Jim Banks is leaving to run for Senate. And Republican John Hostettler, 62, lost reelection back in 2006. Now he’s running in Indiana’s open 8th District to succeed retiring Republican Rep. Larry Bucshon. Hostettler was a notoriously terrible fundraiser who always required party help in competitive races, but he shouldn’t be discounted in this race, where the May 7 primary will effectively pick the next member.  

Arizona Republican Trent Franks, 66, resigned from Congress in late 2017 under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for allegedly sexually harassing staff members. Now he’s running for the open 8th District, where his successor, Republican Debbie Lesko, is running for Maricopa County Board of Supervisors instead of seeking reelection. 

And finally, Dennis J. Kucinich, 77, a former Democratic lawmaker who served in the House until losing a Democratic primary in 2012 after running unsuccessfully for president in 2004 and 2008, is running as an independent candidate in Ohio’s 7th District, represented by Republican Max Miller.  

Rather than age keeping them away from Congress, it might be precisely because they are in a later stage of their careers that some of the older former members are trying to get back to enjoy some of the perks of being in office. And age, and earning power in the private sector, could be the reason why some younger members are choosing to get out now, rather than later. 

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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