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Why Republicans Are Retiring

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week, another Republican member of Congress said he won't run for re-election. Representative Dave Trott of Michigan is the latest in a string of Republicans who say they won't run for office again in 2018. And many are in swing districts. Ken Spain was communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee during the 2010 elections, and he joins us in our studios. Mr. Spain, thanks for being with us.

KEN SPAIN: Thank you.

SIMON: Is this more than the regular rate of attrition from members of Congress?

SPAIN: Well, actually, it's not, believe it or not. Typically, we do not count members of Congress who are seeking higher office. Since 1976, the average is about 22 members of Congress retire. So what we're talking about right here are eight members, at least to date. But really, the window for retirements from members of Congress has really sort of beginning now. It really kind of begins after a lot of members come back from the August recess and really kind of bleeds into the new year.

SIMON: Yeah. Are there equal numbers of retirements on the Democratic side?

SPAIN: Not as many. There are a few opportunities - one being, in particular, probably Minnesota where Tim Walz has decided to seek another office. At least when it comes to the competitive districts, the retirements are occurring, really, kind of where it hurts for Republicans.

SIMON: I'm going to bet you overheard Senator Schumer on that open mic in the Senate chambers say of President Trump, he likes us. He likes me, anyway. Do Republicans feel that way?

SPAIN: (Laughter) I think it's pretty tough to predict which way the president is going to go from one day to the next. I think that Republicans look at the president and see an opportunity to pass an agenda. I don't think they've had very much success over the course of the last few months.

But the one way that Republicans can sort of reverse the trajectory that they're on right now, at least politically, is by putting legislative victories on the board. You know, kind of like in baseball, you know, winning begets winning. And if you start scoring legislative points, the political environment's going to improve. Members are going to feel more inclined to stick around. And your reelection prospects begin to improve.

SIMON: Even if it means making a deal with Senator Schumer and Nancy Pelosi?

SPAIN: Well, the president really is his own brand. And that's kind of a double-edged sword - right? - for Democrats. You know, there's an opportunity for them to legislate with the president. At the same time, there has been, you know, voter research that has shown that voters don't necessarily view President Trump as a dyed-in-the-wool Republican.

He's really his sort of own brand. And so the question is whether voters are going to want to punish Republicans, you know, for what they may see as the president's inability to perform, if that, in fact, turns out to be the case. Hopefully, there's going to be some legislative victories coming here in the next few months, particularly on taxes.

But, yeah, the president's going to zig, and he's going to zag. And in the meantime, I think the Republicans are going to have to do their best to try to muscle through an agenda. And the big one coming up for them is going to be this debate over taxes.

SIMON: When you say muscle through an agenda, the implication is they've got to twist arms in their own party?

SPAIN: Well, I think the Republican Party is going through change. The more populous, working-class element of the Republican Party is on the ascent. And the tectonic plates within both parties, frankly, are changing as both parties are becoming more tribalized. As you see on the Democratic side, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have a significant and outsized voice in their party just as the House Freedom Caucus and the more populous, working-class wing on the Republican side have an outsized voice.

SIMON: Ken Spain was managing director of communications at Koch Industries. He's now a partner at the CGCN consultant group. Thanks so much for being with us.

SPAIN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.