Over the August recess, eight House Republicans announced their retirements bringing the total number of Republican incumbents choosing not to seek reelection to 15. This group includes GOP Reps. Bill Flores (TX), Susan Brooks (IN), Jim Sensenbrenner (WI), Will Hurd (R-TX), Kenny Marchant (TX), Sean Duffy (WI) and John Shimkus (IL), Rob Bishop (UT), Martha Roby (AL), Paul Mitchell (MI), Pete Olson (TX), Bradley Byrne (AL), Greg Gianforte (MT), Rob Woodall (GA) and Mike Conaway (TX). (Two are seeking higher office.)
To put this into perspective, only four Democratic incumbents have announced they will not run in 2020.
Five of the fifteen retirees are from Texas, which have some calling the trend “Texodus.”
This is shaping up to be frighteningly similar to the situation in 2018 when 34 House Republicans chose not to run for reelection compared to only eight Democrats. The result was that ten of these seats flipped from Republican to Democrat while only three seats flipped from Democrat to Republican.
Republican concern over this alarming trend is not misplaced as it depresses GOP hopes of winning back the House majority. What’s causing so many Republicans to run for the exit?
There are a few who may be looking at a tough fight in 2020, and have chosen to retire instead. That may be the case for Rep. Hurd and several others.
However, most of them occupy safe, conservative seats.
As members of the minority party, there’s no doubt they feel frustrated and irrelevant. And if they believe Democrats will retain power in 2020, they’ve simply chosen to avoid another two years of the same.
Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), who lost his bid for reelection in 2018, believes that is the case for some of these lawmakers. He told The Hill, “The most likely outcome is a status-quo election for the House. And that certainly influences people’s decision [to retire], whether they think they can regain the majority or not. For sure, some of those members who retired, [staying in the minority] was a factor in their thinking.”
Julian Zelizer, an expert in congressional history at Princeton University, spoke to The Hill as well. “I don’t think Republicans envision flipping the House in the near future and being in the minority is not fun. Some are also tired of having to defend the party, not just in the era of Trump but in the era of the Tea Party. So the incentives increase to do something else.”
Another former House Republican, Tom Davis (R-VA), said that is one factor, but hardly the only one. He told The Hill that “the GOP base has shifted, creating new power centers that are forcing once-comfortable lawmakers to have to hustle a little bit.”
He added that because lawmakers have not received a pay raise in over ten years, it may be a question of finances. Should I stay here and earn $174,000 or go into the private sector and command a far more lucrative income?
But what Davis sees as the most significant factor are the “changing electoral patterns” brought on by the rise of the populist movement that propelled Trump to the White House…The overall atmosphere in Washington is not very pleasant. This is a global phenomenon caused by the rapidity of change, the instant communications, the rising expectations of those people who are unhappy with the change, who don’t see [government] helping fast enough and who feel their status threatened.”
Other pundits speculate that Republicans are tired of defending Trump. Is Trump himself the reason for the large number of departures?
Curbelo believes Trump was a big part of why he lost. He said, “Trump is a big part of it. Something Trump has done is take away Republicans’ ability to have their own identity, so you’re asked to compete every two years, and your record and your work have little to do with how people are going to vote. That has frustrated a lot of members as well. My work, my record was not really a relevant factor in 2018.”
I don’t buy Curbelo’s argument. There is such a thing as personal responsibility.
Neither does Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX) who recently announced he won’t seek reelection. Flores, 65, said he never intended to have a long career in Congress. He said, “I’m optimistic about opportunities for [the GOP] in 2020. When you boil down all the noise, you come up with a couple of key issues: Are people better off than they were four years ago? Most people would say yes. And do we want to go socialist? Most people would say no.”
Rush Limbaugh discussed possible reasons for the high number of House retirements on his radio show last week.
Pundits have told him the reason is that these lawmakers are being “term limited out of their committee chairmanships, and they don’t want to go back to just being regular members of the House. Once you become a committee chairman, you can’t go back to being a regular bencher.” I would argue that the same is true for Democrats.
He disagrees with those who blame the exodus on Trump as well.
Limbaugh brought up a theory that I disagree with, although I’ve been wrong before. Up front, he told his listeners that he has no evidence for this, “because this is just a supposition,” but thinks it’s possible “based on how I have seen Democrats and their operatives act.” He told his audience:
Nobody, no human being is clean and pure as the wind-driven snow.
We’ve all got something in our closets. We’ve all done something that we don’t want people to know about. I think the Democrats are finding dirt, and they’re going to these Republicans, and they’re saying, “Do you want people to know about this? We are glad to publicize this about you.” “Oh, no, no. No, no! Please don’t.” “Well, okay. Then you gotta retire.” Now, I can’t prove it, but some of this stuff — and some of it may be legitimate. I mean, people retiring after ten years, they may think it’s enough. It’s five terms.
But it’s a lot of power to be giving up. But it just seems to be that these retirements are predominantly Republican, and it’s all happening under the radar. You hear about another retirement here, retirement there. They never add up in your mind. They’re all indiscriminate, little isolated stories — and what’s odd? Nothing’s odd about somebody retiring from Congress. But it seems there’s an exorbitant number of Republicans doing so, and I just have my suspicions about it. That’s all.
He also believes that Democrats have been making inroads at “super-local levels.” He points to Democrats transforming North Carolina and Texas starting at the local level. There’s no denying that these states are no longer solid red.
A caller spoke about the recent scandal involving the Republican Speaker of the Texas State House, Dennis Bonnen, who many consider to be a RINO. Bonnen is said to be a powerful politician in Texas. The story begins with a meeting between Bonnen and one of his top lieutenants, and a conservative activist named Michael Quinn Sullivan in early June. According to the Dallas News:
Sullivan alleges, Bonnen offered writers for his website, Texas Scorecard, media credentials in exchange for refraining from criticizing the legislative session and targeting a group of 10 Republican incumbents. That allegation, which Bonnen denies, has led to political turmoil, a Texas Rangers investigation and a lawsuit.
The caller said, “He [Bonnen] didn’t want ’em back in office because they were attacking him, or they were calling him out as a RINO. Well, there were several other Republicans that knew about it and were going along with this. This has been a huge issue down here. Huge.”
Rush replied that type of thing is going on in other places too, then shifted back to his original argument.
What I really think is going is that a lot of this is being done as opposition research, dirty tricks, what have you, by Democrats, who are hell-bent on taking back Texas or converting Texas to their column. And, you know, the Democrats… Keep one thing in mind. After Obama was elected… People forget this. Barack Obama was a Death Star for the Democrat Party. After his two presidential elections, the Democrat Party lost over 1,000 seats total. Not just in the Congress, of course, but we’re talking statehouse, state senate, governorship, any number of offices. He was just horrible.
Of course, the Drive-Bys didn’t talk about any of this. I remember James Carville. After Trump won in 2016, James Carville was running around complaining that the Democrat Party had never, ever in his lifetime had so little electoral power. Well, my contention is that they’re doing what they can to bring it back at this super local level where they lost it with the election of Obama. Look, the Republicans can play the game, too, and they may well be. I just don’t know. You just don’t hear about a lot of Democrat retirements. But we will keep a sharp eye on this.
Whatever the reason for the high number of Republican retirements, the GOP would be wise to direct their attention to it immediately. Although retirements don’t necessarily mean losing the seats, it’s certainly a sign that Republicans need to work a little harder in the next year if they hope to win back the House majority. It’s an uphill battle and victory will require a large commitment of money and time. But there are fourteen months between now and the election. It will be challenging, but hardly impossible.
Additionally, their task may become far easier once DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz and Prosecutor John Durham release their reports.