Republicans explain why they're retiring: 'You've got this administration that's taken the fun out of dysfunction'

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter
Retiring from Congress, from top, left to right: Sen Jeff Flake, R-Az.; Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J.; Lamar Smith, R-Texas; Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas; Rep. Dave Trott, R-Mich.; Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas; Rep. Dave Reicher, R-Wash.; Rep. John Duncan Jr., R-Tenn.; John Duncan Jr., R-Tenn.; Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio; Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.; Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. (Photos: Joshua Roberts/Reuters, Mel Evans/AP, Joel Kowsky/NASA, Carolyn Kaster/AP, Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images, Andrew Harnik/AP, Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images, Jeff Malet/Newscom via Zuma Press, J. Scott Applewhite/AP, John Minchillo/AP, Jeff Malet/Newscom via ZUMA Press, Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was at a groundbreaking event for a new LG Electronics appliance factory in Clarksville last August when he realized it was time to retire.

“It was a beautiful day, the breeze was blowing, I looked out over the crowd, it was a great day for me,” Corker recalled. “I just knew then that I was not supposed to run for a third term.”

But what finally broke him was a fundraiser at the end of September. “That night I just — it was just over. I just couldn’t do it. Just could not,” he said.

He told Yahoo News he went home, fell asleep at 8 p.m. and woke up at 1 a.m. He let his staff know his decision when he came into the Capitol the next day. “This has been the greatest privilege of my life,” Corker said, but he concluded it’s time to go.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill on September 26, after announcing his retirement at the conclusion of his term. (Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

The powerful Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is one of more than a dozen congressional Republicans so far this year who have announced their decision to retire without seeking another office, a trend that could make it harder for the GOP to hold on to its majorities next year. In the past week alone, three GOP lawmakers have announced their retirements. By contrast, just three Democrats have announced they will retire so far this year.

And the coast-to-coast wins for Democrats from Washington to Virginia to New Jersey in statewide elections on Tuesday may also spook more Republicans in vulnerable seats, as they ponder jumping ship before a potential wave election.

So far, the number of total departing members is still within historical averages for a cycle, but one source close to House Republicans says another wave of members are waiting to announce their retirements after the New Year. Each GOP retirement in a competitive district helps Democrats in their quest to flip the 24 House seats they need to regain control of at least one part of Washington.

Many of those already heading to the exits have expressed frustration at the current state of play in Washington, where entire congressional agendas can be scrambled by a single tweet from the new president. Others were turned off by the unexpected ferocity of anger from their constituents over Republicans’ attempts to repeal Obamacare. Still others say they never wanted to make a career out of being in Congress and are simply ready to move on.

“You’ve got this administration that’s taken the fun out of dysfunction,” Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., told Yahoo News. Dent is a moderate Republican in a competitive district who’s retiring after more than a decade in his seat. “Just the tweeting every day — outlandish statements, inappropriate comments. We spend much of our time just reacting to those sorts of things instead of focusing on the big policy issues of the day.”

Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Dent, leader of an influential caucus of GOP moderates in the House, announced on March 23, 2017, that he will not seek reelection to an eighth House term next year. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

“It makes it hard to enact a legislative agenda when you spend all your time, so much of your time, just talking about what the president said or tweeted. It makes it hard,” he added.

But Dent concedes some of his frustration precedes Trump and his deafening Twitter account — which the president has used to accuse a cable news host of getting plastic surgery and to feud with senators of his own party, including Corker, who he said could not get elected as a “dog catcher.”

“Just doing the basic fundamental tasks of governing has become excruciatingly difficult, from just keeping the government open to preventing a default on our obligations,” Dent said. “That’s made it very hard.”

Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., announced his retirement this week, echoing Dent’s concerns and saying the nation has been “consumed” by political polarization and gridlock. “Today a vocal and obstinate minority within both parties has hijacked good legislation in pursuit of no legislation,” LoBiondo, a 12-term congressman, said in a statement.

The departures of Dent, LoBiondo, Reps. Dave Trott, R-Mich., Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Dave Reichert, R-Wash., are creating open races in competitive districts.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who announced his plans to retire last month in a blistering speech on the Senate floor urging his Republican colleagues not to be “complicit” in propping up Trump, said he’s also been turned off by Congress’s increasing polarization, where members of different parties are less and less likely to share political risk by tackling big legislation — like tax reform — together.

“Now it’s become, you’re either shirts or skins. You’re either for or against,” Flake said. “There are far fewer crossover votes — that’s pretty empirical. You can see that. So it’s become different that way.”

Flake, who faced a tough primary if he had stayed, also realized many voters want party purity from their representatives, and they did not appreciate him speaking out against President Trump on some issues, like immigration or trade.

“The polling certainly said that people valued whether you’re with the president all the time, and accept basically carte blanche, the agenda,” Flake said. “There are things that I agree on, things that I don’t. But I can’t be a rubber stamp for the president.”

The Arizona senator says he sees trouble for the party in some of the retirements coming out of the House.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., accompanied by his wife, Cheryl, leaves the Capitol in Washington on Oct. 24, 2017, after announcing he won’t seek reelection in 2018. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

“People like Charlie Dent, Pat Tiberi, I think if they saw a path to actually doing big things, getting things done that need to be accomplished, like reining in debt and deficit, good tax policy, they’d probably stay,” Flake said. “But they’re frustrated.”

Tiberi, an Ohio Republican, is resigning before the end of January to lead the Ohio Business Roundtable.

Some Republicans are hoping a policy win on tax reform might reenergize the caucus and convince members eyeing the exits to stay. “It’s all going to hinge on tax reform,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., a Trump ally.

Both Flake and Dent faced tough reelection bids they could have lost, but losing them as incumbents still puts the Republican Party at a disadvantage next year.

“The vast majority of incumbents get reelected even in anti-Washington wave elections, and incumbents on the ballot last year almost all ran ahead of Donald Trump,” says Alex Conant, a GOP political consultant who used to work for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Even some Republicans in safe seats are leaving, citing a change in the atmosphere.

“I got a little bit turned off or soured on the first few months of this year because it just seemed to me that there was more hatred and bitterness in politics,” said Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., whose district voted for Trump by 35 points last year. Duncan is retiring after serving 30 years in Congress, in part to spend more time with his grandchildren. “There’s always been some bitterness and some anger and so forth, I know, but it just seemed there was much more of it in those first few months.”

Rep. John Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., questions FBI Director James Comey as he testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill  on July 7, 2016, days after the FBI recommended not to prosecute former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for maintaining a private email server. (Photo: Jeff Malet/Newscom via ZUMA Press)

“We got more hateful, angry, even obscene phone calls during those first few months all over the health care stuff,” he said. “I don’t know, that was disappointing me.”

Four Texas Republicans — Jeb Hensarling, Lamar Smith, Sam Johnson and Ted Poe — are also retiring from their solidly red seats. Earlier this year, Poe also departed the conservative House Freedom Caucus, frustrated by the lack of legislative progress.

Hensarling said he was retiring because of term limits requiring him to give up the chairmanship of a powerful committee, and because he believes members of Congress should not hang on forever.

“I still kind of believe in the Jeffersonian model of the legislature — you come, you do your service, you go home,” he said.

Corker also says he always envisioned himself as a two-term senator and cites that as his main reason for retiring. But frustration crept into his decision as well. The former businessman and Chattanooga mayor spent time talking to constituents last August and felt discouraged that he was unable to promise them the fiscal reform he originally ran on.

“After every event, I’d get back in the car and I’d go, ‘That wasn’t a very uplifting message, was it?’” Corker recalled. His staff would push him to take a more positive tone.

“A big part of it is, when I ran, I ran on the fiscal issues, and I know there’s no chance in the world that we’re going to get serious about the fiscal issues anytime soon,” Corker said. “It’s just the climate’s totally changed.”

Corker, who recently criticized Trump for “debasing” the nation and struggling to tell the truth, did not cite the president as a reason for his retirement.

But the omnipresence of the president may be wearing on some members.

“We used to be able to watch football on Sundays — now the NFL is in a fight with Trump and it’s all politicized,” said Conant, the ex-Rubio consultant. “It’s invaded every part of our life, which I think even for members of Congress is just exhausting.”

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