February 25, 2016
Rebekah L. Sanders
U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, a conservative firebrand whose political career has spanned 25 years, announced Thursday he will retire from Congress.
The Mesa Republican, in an exclusive interview with The Arizona Republic, delivered a second bombshell: He will endorse Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs to replace him and chair Biggs' campaign for the 5th District.
A Harley Davidson motorcycle buff who is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Salmon, 58, said he is leaving Congress to spend more time with his family. For the first time in years, his four children and seven grandchildren are living in Arizona, he said.
Salmon said he sought office to oppose President Barack Obama's "devastating economic platform." But that administration is ending.
"Now more than ever, it seems the biggest hypocrisy to abandon my family in a quest to protect them," Salmon wrote in a Republic op-ed announcing his retirement. "After much soul-searching, that's just not a trade I can justify making any longer."
Salmon's departure comes as a surprise. He disappointed national "tea party" groups just months ago by deciding not to challenge U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for the higher chamber.
An immigration hardliner, Salmon was part of the House opposition that derailed comprehensive immigration reform legislation McCain worked on and helped usher through the Senate in 2013. Immigration activists at the time showed up at Salmon's town halls, sharing stories of family deportations.
Salmon responded with compassion, talking with them after the events, but stuck to his position that border security would need to come first and that there should be no pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
In recent years, Salmon's top priorities were reforming Social Security and promoting a hawkish foreign policy, as a Foreign Affairs Committee member.
Endorses Arizona senate president as his successor
Salmon praised Biggs as a fellow conservative.
"I couldn't be more pleased that Andy has decided to run for my seat and continue the fight to return our nation to the values that made it great," Salmon said in a written statement to The Republic. "I've known Andy and his family for more than two decades, and his character is one of integrity and devotion."
Biggs said he would focus his campaign on smaller government, securing the border and veterans issues.
Even with Salmon's support, Biggs could face ample competition as other hopefuls see a rare open House seat that is safely Republican. The district covers parts of Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert, Queen Creek and Apache Junction.
Biggs plans to serve the remainder of his term at the Legislature, which could strengthen his appeal to voters on experience but will cut into time on the campaign trail. In 2012, Salmon won a comeback bid for Congress against Kirk Adams, then-leader of the state House.
From lobbyist to congressman who tried to oust House Speaker Gingrich
Salmon was a telecommunications lobbyist before starting his political career at the state Legislature in 1991. Three years later, he won a U.S. House seat as part of the Newt Gingrich-led Republican wave of 1994.
Salmon signed on to Gingrich’s conservative Contract with America, which outlined policy promises by Republican candidates, including term limits. Salmon was one of only a few who kept his pledge to step down after three terms.
In 2002, Salmon ran for governor, losing to Democrat Janet Napolitano in a close race. He went on to chair the Arizona Republican Party, returned to lobbying and in 2012 won back his old congressional seat.
Since returning to Washington, Salmon has gained a reputation for chastising leadership for not pushing back hard enough against Democrats. He helped form the rebellious Freedom Caucus and likes to recall his part in a failed 1997 coup against Gingrich, whom he and others at the time believed had retreated too far on conservative issues.
But Salmon has also crossed the aisle, promoting bipartisan meetings of Arizona's delegation and partnering on legislation with Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.
"Arizona is fortunate to have such a remarkable congressional delegation," Salmon wrote in his op-ed. "In an era of intense ideological division throughout Washington, it is heartening to see both Democrats and Republicans working together for the betterment of Arizona."
Salmon, who doesn't have plans yet for future employment, said he will continue the "fight to protect our nation's future." But after the 2016 election, he said, he'll do it as a constituent.