More Members Looking Home to Move Up

Posted February 4, 2009 at 6:21pm

Faced with the prospect of remaining in political purgatory — otherwise known as the minority — for the foreseeable future, an increasing number of younger House Republicans are opting to abandon Washington, D.C., altogether in the hopes of finding better electoral fortunes back home.

Rep. Adam Putnam (Fla.), 34, once seen as a rising star in the House GOP Conference, is the latest on what appears to be a growing list of relatively young, restless Republicans who have announced their intention to run for office in their home states rather than stay in Congress.

Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), 39, a co-founder of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” fundraising program, said younger Members are generally of two schools of thought: stay in the House and invest time in trying to win back the majority, or leave to pursue opportunities opening up back home.

“Members want to go where they feel like they can make the biggest impact,” he said. “It depends on what cause you believe in.”

He added, “You can’t get back into the majority unless you work for it.”

The decision whether to stay or go is familiar to Ryan, who has been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate, but unlike some of his colleagues he said his place is in the House.

“This is a critical time in our history, and I don’t want to leave,” he said, adding that it is still possible to be an effective Member in the minority.

Putnam acknowledged that being so deep in the minority is a factor in younger Members’ plotting their future course, but it isn’t always the most prominent.

“It’s a consideration, sure, I think it goes through your mind,” Putnam said, adding that it played little role in his decision. “For me it was more timing.”

Some Members, like 47-year-old Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), might look to return to their roots. As the former deputy attorney general in Texas, McCaul has indicated he is interested in running for attorney general if the man currently in the job does not seek another term. Otherwise, he’ll likely remain in the House.

“I am focused on serving the people of the 10th Congressional District of Texas for a third term,” he said in a statement. “Should [a state office] become vacant I will seriously consider whether that is the best way for me to continue to serve the state of Texas.”

Ron Bonjean, a former aide to then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said the sense of futility in the minority will drive some Members that are early in their career back to the states, but it doesn’t mean they won’t return to the halls of Congress someday.

“There is not a sense of serious responsibility,” Bonjean said. “They can get more experience and responsibility by going home and coming back at a higher level.”

The added incentives of being closer to home and not having to constantly travel may also tip the scales for Members who are on the fence.

It’s not just the youngest of GOP lawmakers plotting their political future beyond the House. Others, like Reps. Todd Tiahrt (Kan.), Jerry Moran (Kan.) and Zach Wamp (Tenn.), have decided to run for Senate or governor rather than seek another term in the House. Reps. Pete Hoekstra (Mich.), Mary Fallin (Okla.) and Gresham Barrett (S.C.) are also seriously looking at running for governor but have not formally announced their intentions. All of them, except for Barrett, are in their 50s.

Wamp said frustration did not play a part in his decision, saying that he was initially torn about whether to leave the House during what he described as a “restructuring period” following the losses in November.

“We are lean dogs and we are hunting well,” he said.

Bonjean said Members who have several terms under their belts but are not ready to settle into retirement may feel like their political muscles are atrophying in the minority, leading them back to a state office where they can feel like they are in charge of something greater again.

Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, cast the predicament in the most favorable light possible, saying a more positive environment at the state level, such as 36 gubernatorial seats being up for grabs in 2010, has caused Members to consider statewide runs.

“Republicans are sensing an opportunity in 2010,” Spain said. “Increased interest in running for higher office is a sign that potential candidates expect the [political] environment to improve over the course of the next two years.”

Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) agreed that the decision about whether to stay or go depends on what the individual Member’s future goals are, but he argued that many younger Members choose to stay because it’s still early in their legislative careers.

“I think that goes back and forth,” he said. “It depends on what state you are in.”

Rep. Mike Rogers (Mich), who heads the incumbent retention efforts for the House GOP, said if a Member has a burning desire to return to the state level, there is little that can be said to get them to stay.

“Every one of these conversations is different,” Rogers said. “If it’s this notion that Members of the minority cannot be effective‚ that’s [a debate] where I’m going to win every time.”