The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fred Upton calls it quits, leaving a much different House

He is the fourth of 10 Republicans who supported Trump’s impeachment to announce their retirement from Congress

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) in 2017. (Susan Walsh/AP)

A few weeks after voting to impeach Donald Trump, the 10 House Republicans who supported charging the now-ex-president with inciting the Capitol riot gathered with a conservative luminary who told them not to worry.

“Former presidents just sort of fade away,” Arthur Brooks, the former president of the American Enterprise Institute, told the anti-Trump Republicans over breakfast.

“Not this guy,” Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) interjected, politely predicting the exact path Trump would follow. “It’s going to be scorched earth, election was stolen.”

On Tuesday, after more than 35 years in Congress, Upton declared that he had reached the end of this ideological fight for the soul of the Republican Party.

Michigan GOP roiled as Trump injects 2020 grievances into midterms

At 68, Upton said that Trump’s continued anger toward him did not push him to retire at the end of this year. Rather, the final ruling Friday on Michigan’s congressional maps left Upton with just a tiny sliver of his geographic base, while Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) maintained a larger chunk of his in a new district that would pit them against each other in the GOP primary. Trump endorsed Huizenga before Upton dropped out, and it looked as if the two lawmakers might face off.

Upton is the fourth of the 10 House Republicans who supported Trump’s impeachment to announce retirement, and he is the biggest name, by far, given his stature as one of the most respected lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

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First elected in 1986, Upton has spent decades walking the fault line of GOP politics. He served as a reliable ally to much more conservative party leaders — he was a junior lieutenant in the House machine that propelled Newt Gingrich’s “revolution” to the first Republican majority in 40 years in 1994 — yet he maintained enough of his moderate credentials to win 18 terms in a swing district that ran along Lake Michigan in the state’s southwestern corner.

He won the chairmanship of the House Energy Committee in late 2010 by setting up a Jenga game in front of senior Republicans, slowly pulling out each piece to demonstrate his commitment to repealing Obamacare, until the set crumbled.

Yet he delivered for Barack Obama at the end of his presidential term with the massive 21st Century Cures Act. He forged a close bond with then-Vice President Joe Biden while working on the bill, which included the “cancer moonshot” provision that bore the name of his late son, Beau Biden.

And his friendship with the Dingell family remains as close a bipartisan bond as there is in Congress. When Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) lost his fight for the Energy Committee gavel in late 2008, Upton sought him out to console him.

“Fred, don’t cry for me,” Dingell told Upton later that day, according to Upton’s recollection.

A decade later, Upton served as a eulogist at the funeral for the longest-serving member of the House, and Tuesday morning, after Upton gave an emotional floor speech announcing his retirement, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) did not listen to her late husband’s admonishment, breaking down at the first words she spoke.

“He loves the House,” she said in a brief interview, explaining why Upton stuck around an extra six years after GOP term limits forced him to give up the committee gavel.

In a freewheeling interview with reporters just off the House floor, Upton explained that he thought he might have a chance to win the primary against Huizenga. But he had to weigh whether it was worth the pain and suffering.

“It would have been raising millions of dollars — I can do that. It would have been many more millions that would’ve been spent by outside groups. They’re always negative — do you want to go through that? And, you know, the death threats,” Upton said, alluding to how conservatives have threatened his life for breaking with Trump. “They’re all factors.”

On cue, Trump declared victory after Upton’s announcement with an all-capital-letters “UPTON QUITS!” statement and noting that, of the six remaining GOP impeachment votes, some face tough fights.

“Who’s next?” Trump asked.

“So lame, totally predictable,” Upton told reporters, mocking the ex-president. “No imagination.”

What Trump never understood was how valuable Upton was to him politically in the critical state of Michigan. In 2020, Upton won reelection by almost 16 points, while Trump won that district by just four points and narrowly lost Michigan to Biden.

In 2016, when Trump stunned the world and won the state by less than 11,000 votes, Upton won his race by almost 23 points and helped Trump win the district by eight points.

“Had I not carried him in ’16, he wouldn’t have won Michigan,” Upton said.

Too many Republicans cower in fear of Trump, Upton said, making it “likely that he’s going to be our nominee in ’24.” Few GOP lawmakers understand they can win on their own if they just work hard enough, he said

“I proved it,” he said. “Obama won my district. [Hillary Clinton] won my district. I survived.”

His first call Tuesday morning to a fellow lawmaker was not to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has done little to protect the GOP impeachment supporters from Trump’s wrath.

Instead, by 7:20 a.m., he had called Debbie Dingell to tell her of his plans.

He watched the Final Four on Saturday night and ignored Trump’s visit to the eastern part of Michigan. “I’m told he didn’t reference me,” Upton said.

Rep. Dianna DeGette (D-Colo.), his partner on the Cures Act, said his negotiating style calls for finding areas of common agreement — they focused on researching and discovering new technologies to fight diseases, then getting them to patients — and then he sets aside unresolved issues to avoid tanking the broader negotiation.

“Once we had that framework, we were able to just look at every issue and make a really large piece of legislation,” DeGette, whose family is close with Upton’s, said Tuesday.

He’s the most senior member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of centrists who have failed more times than not in trying to find common ground on issues, even with these historically narrow margins for Democrats in the House and Senate.

But Upton counts a $900 billion covid relief package in late 2020 as a victory for the group, as well as the more than $1 trillion infrastructure law Biden signed last fall.

His wife had a sweet answer when someone asked recently what the couple would do if Upton retired. “And they lived happily ever after,” she said, as he recounted in his announcement speech.

Yet Upton could have a political afterlife — he remains close to Biden, and if the Republicans win the Senate majority, it will be difficult to win confirmation for new members of his Cabinet or other senior posts. That could provide an opening for the moderate Republican.

“We’ll see what happens,” Upton said. “I’ve got other chapters.”