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Why so many Republican lawmakers are headed for the exits

A striking number of congressional Republicans have decided to walk away and not seek re-election in 2020. It's worth asking why.
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.

While most of the political world's attention was focused on the Democratic presidential primary debate in Detroit last night, there was some fresh electoral news from Capitol Hill, where yet another U.S. House member said he's calling it quits at the end of this term. Roll Call reported:

Texas Republican Rep. K. Michael Conaway, ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, is planning to retire at the end of his current term, according to GOP sources.Conaway's decision not to seek reelection in 2020, which he is not expected to formally announce until a press conference Wednesday, leaves an open seat in the deep red 11th District, a part of West central Texas that President Donald Trump won by 59 points in 2016.

If it seems as if you've been hearing a lot of retirement announcements lately, it's not your imagination. Conway's declaration came just one day after Utah's Rob Bishop (R) said he's not running in 2020, either. That came three days after Alabama's Martha Roby (R) said she won't seek another term, which came the day after Texas' Pete Olson (R) announced his retirement, which came the day after Michigan's Paul Mitchell (R) said the same thing.

In all, so far this year, nine U.S. House members -- seven Republicans and two Democrats -- have said they're leaving at the end of this term. That doesn't include former Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who'd announced his retirement before passing away in February, nor does it include a handful of House GOP members who are eyeing statewide campaigns in 2020, but who haven't yet won their respective primaries.

To be sure, there were even more retirement announcements at this point two years ago, but that's cold comfort for anxious House Republican leaders -- especially since they suffered their worst midterm cycle since the Watergate era in 2018.

The Hill added yesterday, "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."

The larger question, however, is what's driving these retirement announcements.

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 aren't optimistic 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 conceded to The Hill this week, "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 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 is expected to grow longer.