Ground Game

Why it matters that record numbers of GOP House members are retiring

Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, announced in the past week that he would not seek reelection in this year’s House race.
Molly Riley/Associated Press
Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, announced in the past week that he would not seek reelection in this year’s House race.

Considering the maelstrom surrounding the Trump administration, you’d be forgiven for overlooking another potential storm brewing in Washington — the record number of members of Congress who have decided they will not seek reelection this year.

No, it’s not a controversy filled with cursing, or a standoff with North Korea, but it could signal that big change may be afoot in the halls of the Capitol.

Just this past week, two multi-term California Republicans — Darrell Issa and Ed Royce — decided that they would rather retire than face the possibility of losing reelection to the House in November. Both represent districts that have shifted from Republican to Democrat in recent years. In fact, Issa won reelection in 2016 by less than a single percentage point.


The pair of retirements announced this week puts the tally at 31 Republicans who have decided to either call it quits or run for another office — like, say, governor back home. Of the 31 Republicans not running again, a dozen have instead decided to run for higher office, while 19 are retiring. Some of those leaving likely made their decisions for reasons other than politics. And of course some are departing as part of some sexual misconduct scandal.

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But the last time there were so many retirements was in 1994, when 28 Democrats decided not to run for reelection ahead of what was dubbed the Republican Revolution, the largest GOP wave year in five decades.

To put this in political context, this year Democrats need to win 24 seats in order to take back the majority in November’s midterm elections. The vast majority of Republicans retiring will most likely be replaced by other Republicans given the makeup of their particular districts. But other seats, like those in swing districts from Florida to California and Pennsylvania, could offer very realistic chances for Democratic pick up.

In New England, where all but one of the House seats are held by Democrats, there are only two departures: Massachusetts Democrat Niki Tsongas and New Hampshire Democrat Carol Shea-Porter have said it’s time to go. Shea-Porter’s seat is the more competitive of the two, having bounced back and forth between both parties in the last decade. To take the majority, Democrats will find it important to take that seat.

As the last three Congressional retirement announcements have demonstrated, many of the Republicans leaving Washington aren’t unknown back benchers. Royce is the House Foreign Relations Committee chairman. Issa is a former House Oversight Committee chairman.


Last week, Pennsylvania Representative Bill Shuster, the House Transportation Committee chairman, announced he would leave. In all, eight Republican committee chairmen have said they will not seek reelection, including Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte and Jeb Hensarling, who runs the House Financial Services Committee.

All told, there’s a decent chance these retirements could decide the fate of the House majority.

Republicans have seen bad omens for a while. A year into the new administration, Trump is deeply unpopular, the Republican-led Congress hasn’t accomplished much, and Democrats are fired up. The Democratic wins in the Virginia and New Jersey governor’s races as well as in the Alabama Senate race could signal that Republicans are on the defensive.

That means Republican officeholders face a choice: Should they run for reelection against the odds or just call it a day? The fact that so many have thought long and hard about choice and concluded that it might be too risky to even bother running again is an important signal as the campaign season heats up.

James Pindell can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: