Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick is learning firsthand the paradox of self-imposed term limits: If he really is so principled that he'll retire even when he's favored to win, it might only make voters like him more.
Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Bucks County, outside Philadelphia, promised in 2004 to serve no more than four terms in the House. But now that he's said he'll retire in 2016, local Republicans are trying to persuade Fitzpatrick to run one more time in a district that he's kept safe for the party the last few elections. Meanwhile, Democrats are already gearing up to flip a seat that's a toss-up with Fitzpatrick out of the way, plus another two GOP-held seats in New York that are already open.
"It's a hot topic," said Patricia Poprik, chairwoman of the Bucks County Republican Committee. "At almost every political event I'm at, people bring it up, saying, 'Do you think we can get him to run again?'" Poprik said voters have even stopped her in the grocery store to ask if their congressman, who won 57 percent of the vote in 2012 and 62 percent in 2014, will return.
But Fitzpatrick has quietly insisted he plans on retiring. He "smiled and moved on" when County Commissioner Charles Martin told him he should run again, Martin said. Fitzpatrick's campaign and office did not respond to questions about how many times he's been asked to run again or how seriously he has taken them, instead sending a statement saying he still plans to retire.
"I believe in term limits and have introduced resolutions to put them into place for all members of Congress," Fitzpatrick says. "I made a promise to my family and constituents six years ago that I would only serve four terms in the House and I plan to live by it. There are many in Bucks County who want to serve and they should have the opportunity to do so."
Poprik said there hasn't been a formal intervention with Fitzpatrick but that the topic was on the agenda of attendees at the committee's holiday party in December—although she was "not privy to those conversations" and no other Republicans offered information on what was said.
In the meantime, four other Republican elected officials told National Journal they've brought it up with Fitzpatrick in one-on-one conversations, and some plan on making a more formal push in the future. Under normal circumstances, some of these people would already be jockeying to replace him—indeed, some have been mentioned as potential GOP candidates.
"I brought it up more in a kidding vein," Martin said, "but I will probably have a more serious conversation with him at some point and get a feel for whether I should keep trying or not."
Martin said the county Republican committee will probably lead an organized effort at some point to bring Fitzpatrick back for one more term.
Bucks County Commissioner Rob Loughery and state Rep. Scott Petri also said they have spoken to Fitzpatrick about running again, as did former Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, according to spokesman Chris Brennan.
None were particularly optimistic about their chances of persuading Fitzpatrick to sign up for two more years, but they said it's worth a try.
"He's a very, very principled man," Petri said. "When he makes up his mind and says something, he means it. It's a tall order that he should change his mind. But it's not impossible, from my point of view."
From a political standpoint, it's just as important that Fitzpatrick has taken a swing seat and made it safe for himself. The district isn't particularly conservative; President Obama carried it in 2008 while Mitt Romney won it by only 255 votes in 2012. And even Fitzpatrick lost reelection in 2006, taking a couple terms off before winning the seat back in 2010. No other Republicans have voiced any enthusiasm for the job yet: Cawley and Petri have been noncommittal, and Loughery said he is "as close to a 100 percent 'no' as possible."
Democrats, meanwhile, already have a candidate in the race: State Rep. Steve Santarsiero announced Thursday that he has filed candidacy papers and is preparing a campaign. He told National Journal he is optimistic that the political environment would be right in two years for Democrats to win.
"My state House district is somewhat of a microcosm of the 8th District in that it's more or less a 50-50 swing district," Santarsiero said. (He won by 16 points in November and 15 points in 2012, and he managed a narrow victory in 2010.) "2016 is year where we could win the seat. With Clinton presumably at the top of the ticket, I think we can win it."
Fitzpatrick was first elected after former Rep. Jim Greenwood, a Republican who had promised to limit himself to six terms, changed his mind—before reversing again and dropping out after the primary.
When Greenwood first said he would break his pledge, The Philadelphia Inquirer said the move "surprised exactly no one," and Greenwood justified his change of heart by saying it takes experienced lawmakers to deal with complex issues. Greenwood repeated that sentiment this week when asked whether Fitzpatrick should run again.
"Eight years of experience hardly makes you entrenched incumbent," he said. "But it does give you some wisdom about what's worked."
Petri compared self-imposed term limits to other blanket pledges like promising not to support any new taxes. Lawmakers quickly realize those promises are unreasonable, he said. And why impose restrictions on yourself when it's hard enough to win reelection as it is? "We run every two years. There are term limits," Petri said. "You could be voted out every two years if not doing good job."
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Jack Fitzpatrick is a staff correspondent at National Journal. He has previously written for USA TODAY, NBCNews.com, Slate, The Arizona Republic and other newspapers and websites. He graduated from Arizona State University with a master's degree in mass communication and a bachelor's degree in journalism.