When a House Member Should Retire

by Nathan L. Gonzales January 20, 2015 · 9:00 AM EST

If you’re a member of Congress thinking about retiring, you might want to spend some time listening to Kenny Rogers.

“You gotta know when to hold’em. Know when to fold’em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run,” sang the country music legend in his 1978 song, “The Gambler.”

Last cycle, six GOP House incumbents decided to not run for re-election from districts where President Barack Obama took at least 48 percent in the 2012 presidential election. Democratic strategists could not have drawn up a better list of Republican retirements, which included Pennsylvania’s Jim Gerlach, Iowa’s Tom Latham, New Jersey’s Jon Runyan, Virginia’s Frank R. Wolf, Michigan’s Mike Rogers and California’s Gary G. Miller.

But those members chose to walk away at the right time. Republicans held five of those open seats and lost the sixth, California’s 31st District, by just three points in a midterm election with an unpopular Democratic president.

In the end, the races weren’t even close. Republicans held the handful of seats by an average of more than a dozen points. But it’s not hard to imagine those races being considerably closer and Democrats winning more of them in a presidential year with stronger Democratic turnout.

Just as the 114th Congress begins, two House Republicans have already announced their retirements, leaving behind competitive districts in a presidential cycle.

GOP Rep. Chris Gibson is not running for re-election in New York’s 19th District, which Obama won with 52 percent in 2012. The announcement was first reported by The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. Gibson’s Republican colleague, Michael G. Fitzpatrick, is retiring from Pennsylvania’s 8th District, where Obama received more than 49 percent.

Despite competitive districts and being early Democratic targets in 2014, Gibson and Fitzpatrick won re-election by an average of 27 points in November. It is unlikely Democrats would have put much of a scare into the duo this cycle. But now that the seats are open in a presidential year, and without strong incumbents running, it’s a whole new ballgame. That’s part of the reason why some local Republicans are asking Fitzpatrick to reconsider his decision.

Democrats need a net gain of 30 seats for a majority, so Republicans are not in imminent danger of losing control of the House. But the GOP can limit their vulnerability by convincing their incumbents in competitive districts to run at least one more time.