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Analysis: More Republicans than Democrats are quitting Congress, and their retirements are shaping the party

‘You typically see higher retirements when there is some sort of party shift,’ said one politics expert

Photo Illustration by Alex Cochran

For two consecutive elections, more Republicans than Democrats decided against running for reelection, and so far, 2022 is shaping up similarly. Five Republican senators and one congressman have already announced they won’t seek office again next year, compared with just one Democratic congresswoman, and their retirements could signal a change within the GOP.

“You typically see higher retirements when there is some sort of party shift,” said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Government Affairs Institute.

Major party shifts in Congress can also be the result of a wave election that brings in new blood, or a large, older class of lawmakers moving out. Lately for Republicans, though, it’s been retirements, with 60 from the House and Senate between 2018 and 2020.

“The establishment wing is clearly moving out,” Huder said. “You’re starting to see a lot more Trump-friendly Republicans take over the Republican conference as he’s remade the Republican Party to a significant degree.”

In a state like Tennessee, their all-Republican Senate delegation was remade within two years after former Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, both relative moderates known for bipartisanship, announced their retirements within 15 months of each other. Today, the state is represented by two pro-Trump Republicans, Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty.

For many Republican politicians, appealing to former President Donald Trump’s supporters is practical politics. A poll conducted by Republican polling firm Fabrizio and Lee, which worked with Trump’s 2020 campaign, classified Republican voters into five groups, including “Die-hard Trumpers,” who made up 27% of respondents, and “Trump Boosters,” who were more supportive of the party than Trump personally but still approved of the job he did, at 28%. Another 20% were “Post-Trump G.O.P.,” or voters who liked Trump but wanted a new nominee in 2024, while “InfoWars G.O.P.,” named for the far-right conspiracy theory news site, were 10%. “Never Trump” Republicans were just 15%.

The eroding of the establishment might be welcome news to conservatives who view the moderates as R.I.N.O.s, or “Republicans in name only,” but it’s contributed to a shift away from lawmakers focused on legislating to cultural warriors who emphasize communications, Huder said.

“Much of Congress nowadays is about messaging,” he said, “not as much about creating law or passing things as it used to be.”

Freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., said as much in an email to his colleagues obtained by Time, writing, “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation.” Getting on Fox News is easier than passing a bill, and sometimes it’s safer, too. Bipartisan work today is done “on the down low,” Huder said, and “people don’t want to draw too much attention to it because that could throw a wrench into the works because of the partisanship of the country.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., returns to the Senate chamber during the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 31, 2020.
Steve Helber, Associated Press

That’s not to say bipartisanship is dead. A so-called “G-20” group of 20 Democratic and Republican senators is hoping to tackle minimum wage, immigration and infrastructure. But they’re set to lose one member after next year, when outgoing Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, retires.

It’s not just the loss of moderates that shifts the dynamic in Congress. There’s also a power vacuum created when lawmakers step down. In Missouri, for instance, where the Republican Sen. Roy Blunt announced he won't seek reelection next year, his lame-duck status gives the state’s junior Sen. Josh Hawley, also a Republican, more clout, said Wendy Schiller, chair of political science at Brown University.

“He can go from being a pariah to being a kingmaker in the primary for the GOP to replace Roy Blunt,” she said, referencing the blowback Hawley received in his home state for objecting to the certification of election results in January after the deadly attack on the Capitol.

High turnover in Congress has other consequences. Some experts point to a loss in expertise. Most lawmakers today, for example, have no experience with a functional budget process and only know the brinksmanship negotiations and 11th hour crisis aversion of recent Congresses. There’s also greater incentive to placate lobbyists if elected officials see themselves as short timers who could become a lobbyist themselves after leaving office.

Typically, high workplace turnover suggests a high-stress job or dysfunctional workplace, descriptions that match what we often hear from outgoing lawmakers, like Portman.

“There seems to be less reward for figuring out how to be one of those people that says, ‘How do you find that sweet spot, that common ground, to be able to make progress?’” Portman told The Washington Post after announcing his retirement in January.

The Republican Party’s class of 2022 will say a lot about the future direction of the GOP. Today’s Republican retirees could be replaced by Trump-style successors, or voters might opt for Democrats or moderate Republicans instead, incentivizing the party to take a different direction.

“I think it’s a very consequential election, not just for the Republican Party, but for the United States Senate and for the American political environment,” Schiller said. “It’s either got the potential to push the Republican Party even further to the right into the Trump playbook, or it actually swings the pendulum back.”