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Republican leaders fear retirements

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House Republicans plotting to win back their majority in Congress fear they are on the brink of a massive wave of retirements that could force them to play defense in a high-stakes presidential election year.

Three House Republicans said last week they would not seek another term next year, catching party strategists off guard. Those announcements came earlier than in a typical election cycle, when members who are ready to hang up their voting cards usually wait until after the August recess or after the Christmas break.

Republicans in Congress strategizing to win back the House say the rush to the exits reflects the depressing reality of life in the minority and a pessimistic view of the GOP’s chances of regaining the majority.

“We are in the minority. That is never much fun in the House,” said one senior Republican member of Congress, who asked for anonymity to provide a candid assessment. “The odds are against us retaking the majority.”

Transitioning from the all-powerful majority to the back-bench minority can refocus one’s outlook on public service, said Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman who ran the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

“Moving from the majority to the minority changes your mindset about why am I here, am I getting things done,” Davis said. “It’s a very frustrating life for some of these members right now. There’s been no pay raise for 11 years. You’ve got to maintain two households.”

The job of serving in Congress itself has changed in recent years. Members of Congress now routinely skip town hall meetings to avoid being confronted by angry constituents, they are frequently asked to defend President Trump’s Twitter habits and the House Republican Conference is increasingly influenced by a small group of hard-right conservatives.

“Serving in the era of Trump has few rewards. He has made an already hostile political environment worse. Every day there is some indefensible tweet or comment to defend or explain. It is exhausting and often embarrassing,” the member of Congress said. Even if Republicans were to win back the majority, “our edge would be narrow which means we would live under the tyranny of the Freedom Caucus. Frankly I wonder if this conference is capable of governing.”

Republican strategists say they are bracing for a new wave of exits after members check in with their families over the August recess. Two dozen Republicans won their reelection bids in 2018 by fewer than 5 percentage points; another 25 won by fewer than 10 points.

“There are going to be a lot more [retirements] to come,” said one consultant who works for House Republicans. “Between people finding themselves having to actually work hard for the first time in their long, lazy careers and members who came in in the majority and now hate life in the minority, it's just getting started.”

Two of the members who announced their retirements last week — Reps. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.) and Martha Roby (R-Ala.) — represent deep-red districts where their successor will almost certainly be chosen in the Republican primary.

But a third, Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas), holds a seat that is likely to be competitive. Olson won election to his final term by just 5 percentage points in 2018, and Democrats have signaled that districts like his, in the rapidly growing Houston suburbs, are their prime targets.

Six Republicans have now said they will not seek reelection next year. Two more, Reps. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) and Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), are running for a different office.

The NRCC is keeping a close eye on members who represent potentially vulnerable districts through its Patriot Program. Chris Pack, a spokesman for the NRCC, said they do not anticipate a rush of departures in the coming months.

"It's just a matter of keeping the conference engaged, and that's what Chairman Emmer is trying to do," Pack said, referring to Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), the chairman of the NRCC.

Democrats will try to make life uncomfortable for those Republicans who won the narrowest races in 2018. Already, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has highlighted 19 Republicans they say are on their retirement watch list — including two, Olson and Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.), who have said they won’t run again.

The next tipping point could come in September, when voters in North Carolina head to the polls in a special election meant to fill a vacant seat.

Republican Mark Harris won the seat in a 2018 election marred by absentee ballot fraud, an election the state Board of Elections overturned. Private polling shows a close race between state Sen. Dan Bishop (R) and Iraq War veteran Dan McCready (D).

“Expect more [retirements] if Republicans lose NC-09,” said another Republican strategist involved in House races.

History argues against House Republicans’ chances of winning back their majority in a presidential year. The last time a party lost the majority in a midterm only to win it back two years later came in 1948, when Harry Truman won election to a full term and carried the House with him.

No party has gone from the minority to the majority in a presidential election year since Republicans won a narrow majority in 1952, the year Dwight Eisenhower won the presidency.

More immediate historical precedent suggests Republicans might fall even farther into the minority. President Trump’s approval ratings remain mired in the 40s, and some Republicans in Congress quietly worry he is headed for defeat next year. Others are simply tired of being asked to answer for every tweet.

“It’s way too early to tell what the [political] dynamic will be, but Trump doesn’t seem to be adding to the equation at this point. He’s doing a lot with his base, but he needs to get beyond that base,” Davis said. “President Trump promised to be a change agent, and he is. He’s torn up the old rule book, and a lot of members aren’t used to playing by these rules.”

Davis said the political climate would weigh on members’ minds as they contemplate their futures.

“Nobody,” he said, “wants to go out the hard way.”

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