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House GOP's 2010 'Tea Party' Class Heads For The Exits

Retiring Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., seen here awaiting election results on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010.

Like so many Americans approaching retirement, Virginia Republican Rep. Scott Rigell dreams about spending a little more time on the water.

"I have a little rowboat called Miss Nelly. She's 13 ft. long and there's not a motor on it. There's no radio on it. And I'm so looking forward to being on that rowboat," says Rigell.

Rigell is retiring after just six years in Congress. He was one of the 87 Republicans who rode the "tea party" wave to a pivotal GOP takeover of the House.

At the end of this Congress, more than one-third of that class will be gone from the U.S. House.

Like many of those freshman lawmakers, Rigell had never held any public office before he arrived in Washington. Before he took office, Rigell was a car salesman.

He ran as an "outsider" in a year when voters were tired of political insiders.

As it turns out, some people who never harbored ambitions to be career politicians don't love being politicians.

"I think, for many of us in my class, it truly wasn't on the bucket list of life to be here. It wasn't as if I was a junior in high school saying, 'I want to be a member of Congress,'" Rigell says.

Twenty one members of his class have already left, although two of them now serve in the Senate: Sen. Cory Booker of Colorado and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. Three more House Republicans are running for the Senate this year.

Another eight members of the class are retiring. The retiring lawmakers include a farmer, a decorated Army veteran and a construction company owner.

"I've had better jobs than this," retiring Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., says with a chuckle, "It's amazing to me how people are like, 'Oh, I've got to run for Congress. That's going to be the best.' I don't know. I never really felt that way."

Benishek was a surgeon before he came to Congress. He says voters frustrated at Washington should cheer these lawmakers' decisions to retire after a few years.

It's like self-imposed term-limits — and Benishek says that means fewer career politicians.

"There is a lot of turnover in Congress. Despite what people say about people staying forever, that's not really the case. I think people didn't realize how much turnover there is in general," he says.

Wisconsin Republican Rep. Reid Ribble ran his family's roofing company before he won in 2010. He's retiring to spend more time with his family, but he conceded this: "It would be disingenuous to say I'm not also frustrated with the work here."

Ribble and his retiring colleagues say they are, for the most part, proud of what a Republican-controlled House managed to get done these past six years.

He cited making the Bush tax cuts permanent, new restraints on federal spending, and updated education and highway laws.

"These were fairly significant things that we got done while we were here so some of us are saying, 'OK, we can go home,'" he says.

Rigell agrees. He says he's grateful for his time in Washington but, in a lengthy interview in his office, he keeps coming back to a nagging concern that the tea party class — and the years since — will also be remembered for another reason.

"Well, I'd say we were right at the cusp of when the American political system started to come unhinged. And it's unfortunate," he says.

Rigell says he wants to continue work in his soon-to-be private life to inject more civility in American politics.

There may be more job opportunities for that off Capitol Hill.

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