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Posted 07.07.05
 
 
   

Retirements Imperil Republican Majority in U.S. House, MU Researcher Finds

COLUMBIA, MO -- Although Republicans have control of both Congress and the White House, the rate at which Republican House members voluntarily retire may be hurting the party, according to a University of Missouri-Columbia study.

"While enhanced Republican fortunes in terms of incumbent re-election and open-seat contests have provided the party with a congressional majority over the past decade, the on-going propensity of Republicans to retire voluntarily from the House represents something of a potential Achilles¿ heel for the party," said Marvin Overby, professor of political science at MU, who co-authored the study with graduate student Adrian U-Jin Ang.

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Since incumbent representatives have been relatively isolated from electoral defeat, the decisions of House members to voluntarily vacate their seats substantially affect the composition of the House. Between 1992 and 2000, 217 House members voluntarily retired while only 91 lost their seats in electoral defeats. During this period, an average of 6.2 percent of Democrats and 7.3 percent of Republicans retired at the end of each two-year term.

Greater ambition for more powerful positions may play a part in the retirement of Republicans from the House. According to the study, many House Republicans may be unhappy with their role as "legislative backbenchers" in a government their party dominates. It is likely more Republicans see themselves as "executive material," and, therefore, leave the House to pursue positions that have more power and prestige attached to them, Overby said.

Many Republicans who voluntarily leave safe House seats run for governors¿ seats, where they have immediate executive responsibility, or for the Senate, from where they can launch a more serious run for the White House. Between 1996 and 2004, 2.5 percent of House Democrats retired to pursue another elected office, compared to 3.6 of House Republicans.

This ambition is hurting Republicans, the researchers found. Although Republicans have defended incumbent seats and won open seats better than Democrats since 1994, retirement rates consistent with those of Democrats would have given the Republicans between 18 and 23 more seats than Democrats, instead of their actual margin of 13 seats. As a result, Overby described the Republican majority in the House as "stable but thin," meaning that it is potentially vulnerable with even a mild public swing toward the Democratic Party.

"Any open seat raises the greater likelihood that a seat will be lost, so a retirement takes a seat that is a virtual 'gimme' and turns it into one that is more competitive," Overby said.

Overby and Ang's paper is currently under review at Legislative Studies Quarterly.

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