Recent GOP retirements follow months of progressive pressure

Frustrated with constituent pressure, a growing number of GOP lawmakers have said they won't seek reelection in 2018.

After Rep. Jimmy Duncan (R-TN) called his constituents asking for town halls "kooks," demonstrators protested outside his office holding signs reading "Kook for Truth." CREDIT: Indivisible East Tenneseee
After Rep. Jimmy Duncan (R-TN) called his constituents asking for town halls "kooks," demonstrators protested outside his office holding signs reading "Kook for Truth." CREDIT: Indivisible East Tenneseee

Rep. Jimmy Duncan (R-TN) really didn’t want to hold a town hall.

The Tennessee lawmaker has served in Congress for almost three decades, comfortably keeping the seat in the conservative Knoxville area that he won in a 1988 special election after the death of his father, John Duncan Sr. Together, the Duncans have held the seat for 54 years.

Because Duncan has never had to worry about his reelection, meeting with a large number of constituents was never high on his priority list. Don Walker, Duncan’s press secretary, told ThinkProgress he cannot remember the last time the congressman held a town. “He prefers to do one-on-one meetings,” Walker said.

For many decades, that strategy worked fine. But not in 2017.

Mobilized by President Trump’s election, progressives in traditionally conservative enclaves across the country have banded together, forming groups that are resisting Trump’s agenda by holding their elected representatives accountable for their votes. Taking a page from the Tea Party’s playbook, the groups have pressured lawmakers to hold public town halls. In Tennessee’s second district, Sarah Herron, founder of the Indivisible East Tennessee chapter, led that effort.

Duncan refused. “I do not intend to give more publicity to those on the far left who have so much hatred, anger and frustration in them,” he said in a February letter. “I have never seen so many sore losers as there are today,” the congressman added, saying that a town hall “would very quickly turn into shouting opportunities for extremists, kooks and radicals.”

Fliers declared Duncan a missing person in his district. CREDIT: Indivisible East Tennessee

Constituents told Herron that in one-on-one meetings, Duncan grew increasingly dismissive and grumpy. “They weren’t productive. He wasn’t interested in hearing us out,” she said. “He just became belligerent.”

But voters did not back down. One group held a demonstration outside his Knoxville office, calling themselves a “Kookfest.” Then in April, Herron’s Indivisible group plastered the district with “missing person” fliers, declaring Duncan missing from his district.

“We put them on all of the utility poles outside his offices,” Herron said, explaining that the district was blanketed with fliers. “I think he lost it. Like that’s the moment… He’s not used to any kind of accountability and we were not going away.”

“For the first time ever, people were not happy with him,” she continued. “He’s used to just coasting alone and he does not like opposition. He did not handle it well.”

Three months after the flier campaign, Duncan announced that he would not be seeking reelection in 2018. In his official announcement, Duncan said he would be retiring in order to “spend less time in airports, airplanes, and traveling around the district and more time with my family.” But Herron noted that his statement also made a mention of his progressive constituents and “recent attacks against [him] from the far left.” They had gotten under his skin.

The annoucement came as a surprise to many in his district, who question if their activism contributed to his decision to leave Congress.

“Because of the shift in his behavior, I can’t imagine that we’re not part of the equation,” Herron said. “We certainly made his job different… We definitely changed his job and then he no longer wanted that job.”

“We definitely changed his job and then he no longer wanted that job.”

Duncan is just one of a handful of Republican congressman, both in traditionally safe and swing districts, who have already announced that they will not be seeking reelection in 2018. Democrats, including many political newcomers, have vowed to give GOP incumbents serious challenges next election cycle. While none of the retiring lawmakers will attribute their decision to the growing left-wing resistance in their districts, Indivisible’s leadership is ready to take some credit.

“Across the country, legislators are being reminded that they were elected to serve the people of their district, not their party or the president,” Helen Kalla, Indivisible’s press manager, told ThinkProgress in an email. “The recent resignations this early in the congressional term make it clear that, for some representatives, leaving Congress altogether is preferable to defending their own record and that of the president’s.”

While Duncan’s seat leans more Republican, several Republicans in swing districts have also announced decisions to leave Congress. In Seattle’s suburbs, moderate seven-term Republican Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) shared his decision to retire earlier this month. Michigan’s Rep. Dave Trott (R-MI) decided this month to leave Congress after his second term, choosing instead to return to the private sector. And in Pennsylvania’s 15th district, moderate Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) attributed his decision not to seek reelection to growing dysfunction in government.

Retirements are nothing new —  on average, 22 House members retire each election cycle and do not seek another office, according to CQ Roll Call. Dent’s communications director, Shawn Millan, told ThinkProgress that Dent frequently meets with left-leaning constituents and their pressure did not factor into his decision, and Breanna Deutsch, Reichert’s press secretary, also said the opposition did not play a role. Trott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Despite what the lawmakers’ stated reasons for leaving Congress might be, in a year when elected officials are experiencing heightened opposition that has changed the nature of their jobs, progressives are saying they played a part.

“It really validated the last eight, nine months of unrelenting hard work to hold him accountable,” Adam Nelson, a member of Indivisible MI11, told ThinkProgress about Trott’s decision to retire from Congress. “The people of the 11th district have finally awoken to the idea that they deserve a representative who represents them.”

Trott, a 56-year-old attorney who previously owned and ran the largest “foreclosure mill” in Michigan, has served only two terms in Congress. While he claims he had never planned to serve in Congress for a long time, Nelson said his retirement is a testament to how progressives changed the nature of his job, leading him to fear potential embarrassment in 2018.

After months of pressure from Nelson’s group, Trott held a town hall in Novi, Michigan. Almost 1,000 constituents showed up in the snow to voice their concerns, and throughout the event, Trott was interrupted by boos and chants of “Shame on you!” After he left the room, a Republican strategist and Trott adviser was caught on a hot mic calling the opposition “un-American crap.”

To Nelson, that comment is proof that Trott cannot handle the job.

“I think he got into Congress thinking that he could just pass a couple laws that would make himself richer, and then all of a sudden the people he was supposedly representing started holding him accountable, and that was not a good feeling for him,” Nelson said. “I don’t think he has the stomach for it. It’s one thing to foreclose on people who live in poverty and don’t have the resources to defend themselves. It’s entirely another thing to defend yourself against thousands of angry voters.”

Chris Petzold, the leader of Indivisible’s chapter in Washington’s eighth district, felt similarly about Reichert’s decision not to run for reelection.

Indivisible Washington Eighth confronts Rep. Reichert at a community health center in Auburn, WA.
Indivisible Washington Eighth confronts Rep. Reichert at a community health center in Auburn, WA. CREDIT: Chris Petzold

“To me, this is a clear indicator that it’s working,” she said about her group’s resistance efforts. “He realized it’s not going to be an easy run this time, and he saw the pressure that we were placing on him on a daily basis, and maybe he didn’t want to deal with that anymore.”

In an interview explaining his retirement announcement earlier this month, Reichert said that the current political climate is “a part of the equation.” Deutsch, the congressman’s press secretary, said that while politics may have been part of the equation, Reichert has faced “tough elections” in the past and left-wing opposition did not affect his decision.

Even still, 2018 is likely to be different from tough elections Reichert faced in the past. In 2016, he easily kept his seat, winning over 60 percent of the vote without a serious challenger, “but he has a whole line-up now,” Petzold said.

As more Republicans in swing districts announce their plans not to seek reelection, experts are forecasting it will be increasingly difficult for the party to maintain its majority in 2018. Democrats stand a better chance in purple districts without a Republican incumbent. Though most of the toss-up districts are heavily gerrymandered, Reichert’s district broke for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Now that she knows her congressman won’t be returning, Herron said that winning Duncan’s seat, which has not been held by a Democrat since 1855, is her next goal. 

“It would be historic for that seat to flip blue, and I think we can do it.”