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What's driving so many congressional Republicans into retirement?

As more House Republicans head for the exits, ruling out re-election bids, it's worth understanding what's driving the retirement announcements.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

In every election cycle, party leaders try to keep retirements to a minimum. Incumbents tend to be re-elected, so the more members head for the exits, the more party officials have to worry about potentially competitive contests.

With this in mind, House Republican leaders can't be pleased with recent developments. Just yesterday, three sitting House members announced they're stepping down at the end of this Congress, and while one of them was a Democrat -- California's Susan Davis isn't running for re-election -- two of them were longtime GOP incumbents. Texas' Bill Flores announced his retirement yesterday morning, and in the afternoon, an even more high-profile Republican made the same declaration.

Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner announced Wednesday that he will not run for reelection next year, according to multiple local media reports.The longtime lawmaker's exit means the Badger State is losing its most senior member, and the second-most-senior Republican in the House. He is also the second Wisconsin Republican to announce he is leaving Congress after Rep. Sean P. Duffy said last month that he would be resigning on Sept. 23.

As of this morning, there are 12 House Republicans retiring at the end of this term, as well as four House Democrats. (This total does not include two Republicans, Pennsylvania's Tom Marino and Wisconsin's Sean Duffy, who resigned. It also doesn't include North Carolina's Walter Jones, who died earlier this year.)

At first blush, 12 may not seem like a lot. There are, after all, 197 GOP lawmakers in the chamber, so a dozen probably seems like a modest percentage.

But given that Election Day 2020 is still 425 days away, 12 retirement announcements from one party's House conference is quite a few. In fact, it's roughly in line with the retirement tally from this point two years ago -- which set a high bar for recent cycles and was a rather brutal year for House Republicans, who ended up suffering the most number of losses than any midterm cycle since the immediate aftermath of Watergate.

The larger question, of course, is why we're seeing so many retirement announcements.

We last kicked this around a couple of months ago, but as the total keeps rising, it seemed worth revisiting the earlier coverage.

While there's rarely one single explanation for a dynamic like this, I think there are a few angles to keep an eye on. The first is that being in the House minority isn’t much fun for members eager to have a real impact -- especially after being in control for a while -- and Republicans are increasingly pessimistic about reclaiming the majority in 2020.

Second, Donald Trump isn’t exactly playing a constructive role encouraging members to stick around. A senior GOP lawmaker recently conceded to The Hill, “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.”

Complicating matters, House Republicans have self-imposed committee term limits, which means members who’ve served in committee leadership posts for a few terms have to move on. This had the effect of pushing members into retirement in the last Congress, and in some cases, we’re starting to see the same dynamic unfold this year.

Taken together, a sizable number of members have decided to head for the exits -- and the list may yet grow longer.