It isn’t hard to guess why Camp flirted with the Senate. He is term-limited as Ways and Means chair and must give up the gavel in 2015 even if Republicans maintain control of the House. Camp really doesn’t have much of an agenda outside tax reform at the moment, and his influence over tax policy will considerably diminish after his term as chair is over (especially if Paul Ryan is his replacement). It is hard to imagine that Camp will be very comfortable in a GOP House caucus that is becoming increasingly conservative and anti-compromise.
It’s easier to imagine Camp fitting in better in the Senate, even if the collegial atmosphere in the chamber no longer resembles the classic film Advise and Consent. The Michigan Republican’s attempts to work with Democratic members of Ways and Means is much more in line with how bills become law in the Senate than in the House, where Republican leadership (and Democratic leaders before them) normally disdain working with the opposition. Camp probably concluded – correctly – that if he wanted to have a voice on tax reform after next year, he was more likely to have it from the Senate, particularly if he could be named to the Finance Committee (which would have been a possibility because of Republican practices protecting vulnerable freshmen in both chambers).
But ultimately Camp must have decided that running for the Senate was a long shot. No Republican has won a Michigan Senate seat since Spencer Abraham in 1994, and he served only one term before being defeated by Debbie Stabenow. Republicans haven’t even mounted a credible challenge to either Stabenow or Carl Levin in recent years, with popular former Gov. John Engler deciding he didn’t have much of a chance in 2006. Camp is a much better candidate than former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who lost to Stabenow by 20 points last year, but even he would have faced long odds to reverse those kinds of numbers.
So that leaves Camp free to focus on tax reform, at least until Congress bogs down before the midterm elections. But that doesn’t improve the effort’s chances all that much. Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus and Camp have both pledged to mark up bills this fall, but we’ll see. Both men are outliers. Baucus’s willingness to embrace GOP positions has him on the outs with Senate leadership, while Camp’s attempt to be realistic in the House has made him unpopular with the right wing of his party (to which Speaker John Boehner remains somewhat beholden). Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on the basic question of revenues, which would seem to make even putting ideas on paper somewhat of a risk.
Don’t be surprised if Camp’s decision to pass on the Senate is a precursor to a retirement from Washington. If tax reform efforts become stymied, the chair might find it hard to wait until either a Republican presidential candidate wins in 2016 or the political atmosphere in Washington changes in a way that makes tax reform more likely.