Why Are So Many House Republicans Retiring?

Rep. Will Hurd speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill, February 13, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
No one likes serving in the minority, and the suburbs are getting dicier for Republicans.

On Monday, Representative Kenny Marchant became the twelfth House Republican (and the fourth GOP member from Texas) to announce that he will not seek reelection in 2020. What explains the House GOP exodus in general and the “Texodus” in particular?

There are a few different factors. First, being in the minority simply isn’t as interesting or fun as being in the majority. Plenty of Republicans saw the writing on the wall in 2018, when 39 House GOP incumbents, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, declined to seek reelection. Some are learning that lesson now.

“It would be unusual if Republicans weren’t experiencing a high number of retirements,” David Wasserman, who analyzes House races at the Cook Political Report, tells National Review. “That’s what happens when you lose the majority. That’s what happened in 2008, which is one reason Democrats had a banner year in House races twice in a row.” Wasserman notes that 2020 GOP retirements are “on pace to match or exceed 2008.”

A second factor contributing to the GOP retirements is that the Trump presidency has turned safe Republican suburban districts into battlegrounds.

For example, Kenny Marchant’s margin of victory in his suburban Dallas district was 25 points in 2012, 33 points in 2014, 17 points in 2016, and 3 points in 2018.

Texas congressman Pete Olson, who has also announced his retirement, won his suburban Houston district by 32 points in 2012, 35 points in 2014, 19 points in 2016, and 5 points in 2018.

Those are trend lines that no incumbent wants to see.

“The suburbs are diversifying and moderating so rapidly that many of the districts Republicans drew back in 2011 are no longer reliable,” says Wasserman.

In 2018, Democrats ousted two Texas Republicans in Houston and Dallas. “Historically, the cities have been bright blue and surrounded by bright red doughnuts of Republican suburban voters,” Texas senator Ted Cruz told the Washington Post last week. “What happened in 2018 is that those bright red doughnuts went purple — not blue, but purple. We’ve got to do a more effective job of carrying the message to the suburbs.”

“The president’s reelection campaign needs to take Texas seriously,” said Cruz, who won reelection by just 2.6 points in 2018. Cruz added that it is “by no means a given” that Trump will carry the state in 2020.

The GOP’s suburban problem isn’t limited to Texas. Retiring Georgia congressman Rob Wooddall won reelection in his district northeast of Atlanta by 21 to 31 percentage points from 2012 to 2016, but he won reelection by just two-tenths of a percentage point in 2018. When a blue wave swept over the House GOP in 2018, Republicans lost districts that include suburban areas in states as red as Kansas, Utah, and South Carolina.

A third factor contributing to GOP retirements, says Wasserman, is the “disconnect between President Trump’s worldview” and that of some in the Republican caucus. This is the best explanation for the retirement of Texas Republican Will Hurd, a former CIA operative and the lone black Republican in the House, who won narrow victories in 2014, 2016, and 2018. Many thought that Hurd, at age 41, could be the future of the party.

But Hurd said in a statement last week that he has decided to “pursue opportunities outside the halls of Congress to solve problems at the nexus between technology and national security,” without saying what exactly he plans to do. Hurd has disagreed with President Trump on the border wall, free trade, and foreign policy. And he was one of just four House Republicans who voted in July to condemn Trump’s tweets telling progressive Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to the countries “from which they came,” fix them, and then “come back and show us how it is done.” (The four lawmakers he was addressing are minorities, and three are natural-born citizens.)

Martha Roby, an articulate and promising 43-year-old member from Alabama, also announced her retirement this summer. In 2016, Roby said she couldn’t vote for Trump after the Access Hollywood tape became public, but she supported the Trump presidency enough to win the president’s endorsement in 2018.

Another possible factor nudging members toward retirement, a factor that no one would ever likely admit to, is that members of Congress haven’t gotten a pay raise in a decade. On one hand, a member’s $174,000 salary is three times the national median salary. On the other hand, members of Congress are expected to maintain two residences while making a salary well below what they could likely make outside of government. At this populist moment, it’s not clear when the next raise for members of Congress is coming: A deal to raise congressional salaries by 2.6 percent collapsed in June.

Some of the retirees are stepping down for reasons that have little to do with the weakness of the House GOP. A couple are seeking higher office, such as Alabama’s Bradley Byrne, who is running for the Senate, and Montana’s Greg Gianforte, who is running for governor. And a couple of retirees, Rob Bishop of Utah and Mike Conaway of Texas, come from safe districts but are losing their status as committee ranking members owing to the GOP’s self-imposed term-limits.

But any way you look at it, twelve retirements so far is bad news for the House GOP. We’re still only seven months into the new Congress, and several more representatives will probably announce their retirement in the coming months. For all the talk about voters’ anger at Washington, incumbents are still much more likely to win their elections than are candidates running for open seats. This summer, the GOP’s slim odds of winning back the 19 seats necessary to take back the House have become even slimmer.

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