Wave of GOP retirements threatens 2020 comeback

A wave of House GOP retirements that accelerated during the August recess is creating fresh headaches for party leaders and suggesting Republicans see little chance of winning back the chamber in 2020.

So far, 15 Republicans have announced this cycle that they are retiring, resigning or running for other offices, including eight since the summer recess began in late July.

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A handful of those departing, such as Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdGOP struggles with retirement wave Here are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Pelosi: GOP retirements indicate they'll be in the minority, with Democrat in the White House MORE (R-Texas), would have faced tough reelections in competitive districts.

But the vast majority occupy safe, conservative seats — a sign that these lawmakers may be fatigued from the chaotic Trump era and have no desire to wander in the political wilderness for another two years or longer after losing the House in 2018.

“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,” said former Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloPelosi: GOP retirements indicate they'll be in the minority, with Democrat in the White House The Hill's Morning Report - Congress returns: What to expect Wave of GOP retirements threatens 2020 comeback MORE (R-Fla.), one of two dozen Republicans swept out of office during the anti-Trump wave election that handed Democrats control of the House last fall.

“For sure, some of those members who retired, [staying in the minority] was a factor in their thinking,” he added.

Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said the notion of remaining in the minority is one factor driving the wave of GOP retirements, but it's hardly the only one. 

The GOP base has shifted, he said, creating new power centers that are forcing once-comfortable lawmakers "to have to hustle a little bit."

He also pointed to the simple question of finances, as members of Congress have not received a pay increase in more than a decade.

But perhaps the most significant factor, Davis said, are the "changing electoral patterns" brought on by the rise of the populist movement that propelled Trump to the White House — an environment that is hardly unique to the United States.  

"The overall atmosphere in Washington is not very pleasant," said Davis, who previously led the House GOP’s campaign arm. "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."

Whatever the cause, retirements are piling up quickly.

This week, GOP Reps. Bill FloresWilliam (Bill) Hose FloresHere are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Trump calls on House Republicans to let committee chairs stay on the job longer Wave of GOP retirements threatens 2020 comeback MORE (Texas) and Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerHere are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Republicans pour cold water on Trump's term limit idea Trump calls on House Republicans to let committee chairs stay on the job longer MORE (Wis.) said they won’t seek another term in 2020.

They joined six other Republicans to announce over the summer recess that they’re either retiring or resigning: Reps. Hurd, Kenny MarchantKenny Ewell MarchantHere are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Wave of GOP retirements threatens 2020 comeback Texas Republicans sound alarm about rapidly evolving state MORE (Texas), Sean DuffySean DuffyHere are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Duffy explains why unborn child's health caused him to resign from Congress Wave of GOP retirements threatens 2020 comeback MORE (Wis.) and John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusHere are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Wave of GOP retirements threatens 2020 comeback Illinois Rep. Shimkus won't run for reelection MORE (Ill.) as well as former Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopHere are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Overnight Energy: House moves to block Trump drilling | House GOP rolls out proposal to counter offshore drilling ban | calls mount for NOAA probe House GOP rolls out energy proposal to counter Democrats offshore drilling ban MORE (Utah) and former Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayHere are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Republicans pour cold water on Trump's term limit idea Wave of GOP retirements threatens 2020 comeback MORE (Texas).

Democrats have mocked the five GOP retirements from the Lone Star state as the “Texodus.”

All told, 15 Republicans have already announced plans to give up their seats, compared to four Democrats. And as the retirement list has grown this summer, GOP lawmakers and aides are anxiously asking one another who might be next to go. 

Among the names being floated around Washington are veteran establishment Republicans such as Reps. Fred UptonFrederick (Fred) Stephen UptonEnergy efficiency cannot be a partisan issue for Washington Republicans pour cold water on Trump's term limit idea The Hill's Morning Report - Can Trump save GOP in North Carolina special election? MORE (Mich.), Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotJudiciary approves new investigative powers with eyes on impeachment Republicans pour cold water on Trump's term limit idea Wave of GOP retirements threatens 2020 comeback MORE (Ohio), Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryNegotiators kick off defense bill talks amid border wall, Iran debates Defense bill talks set to start amid wall fight House rejects GOP motion on replacing Pentagon funding used on border wall MORE (Texas) and Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenHillicon Valley: Lawmakers say Zuckerberg to 'cooperate' on antitrust probes | Dems see victory after McConnell backs election security funds | Twitter takes down fake pro-Saudi accounts Lawmakers say Zuckerberg has agreed to 'cooperate' with antitrust probe Democrats hold first hearing in push for clean energy by 2050 MORE (Ore.) — all former committee chairmen — as well as rank-and-file members such as Reps. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerBolton returns to political group after exiting administration Overnight Defense: Trump ousts Bolton in shocker | Fallout, reaction from GOP senators | Senate spending talks in chaos | Dems eye vote to nix Trump border emergency The Hill's 12:30 Report: Bolton out as national security adviser MORE (Ill.) and Ken BuckKenneth (Ken) Robert BuckWave of GOP retirements threatens 2020 comeback With budget deal, Congress again fails to hold spending in check The Memo: Mueller's stumbles distract from substance MORE (Colo.). 

“The retirements are unnerving,” said Bill Miller, a GOP lobbyist and consultant based in Austin, Texas. “The reality is that life in the minority is just not as appealing, but at the same time, in some of these cases, there is a little bit of fear of losing built into the decisions not to run again.” 

Democrats are hardly immune to the trend, and retirements don't necessarily mean losing the seats.

Heading into the 2012 elections, the party roles were reversed: Democrats had the White House, but Republicans held the Speaker’s gavel, and all signs pointed to them keeping it.

During that cycle, 22 Democrats retired or sought a different office, but Republicans picked up only five of those seats, and GOP operatives are hoping to have similar success next year defending the open spots.  

“People are reading entirely too much into these [retirements],” said Corbin Casteel, a longtime GOP strategist in Austin. “We’ve had members retire before and have held the seats. This is not meant to be a lifetime job.”

There’s some disagreement about President TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE’s role in the wave of retirements.

Privately, Republicans frequently grumble about having to respond to the latest presidential tweet, scandal or attack on sitting lawmakers. And outside observers say the chaos surrounding the White House is likely contributing to the departures. 

“I don't think Republicans envision flipping the House in the near future, and being in the minority is not fun,” said Julian Zelizer, an expert in congressional history at Princeton University. “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.”

Curbelo, who represented a heavily Hispanic swing district in the Miami area, said Trump specifically played a role in his defeat to Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-PowellDebbie Mucarsel-PowellHispanic Democrats announce 'Latina Prosperity Principles' Gun epidemic is personal for lawmakers touched by violence Democrats race against clock with push for impeachment MORE last year. And the controversial, all-consuming president may be why some of Curbelo's former colleagues are calling it quits.

“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,” Curbelo told The Hill on Friday.

“My work, my record was not really a relevant factor in 2018,” he added.

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Yet a number of Republicans eyeing the exits insist the president was not a factor in their decision.

Flores, a former oil company executive elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave election, said he never intended to have a lifelong career in Washington. And with his parents now in their 80s and a newly married son, Flores said his “family situation” made it a good time to leave Congress.

“I’m optimistic about opportunities for [the GOP] in 2020,” Flores said in a phone interview Friday. “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.”

Still, the departures mark a new challenge for GOP leaders and campaign operatives, who are fighting to flip the chamber but face a growing battlefield as their incumbency shrinks. 

The Democrats’ campaign arm is cheering the trend, with 19 Republicans on its retirement watchlist

Former Rep. Dennis RossDennis Alan RossWave of GOP retirements threatens 2020 comeback Israel should resist Trump's efforts to politicize support Pro-Saudi Arabia think tank abruptly closes in Washington MORE (R-Fla.), a senior member of the GOP whip team who retired last cycle, said another driver of the flurry of retirements is the grueling campaigning required to take back the majority.

GOP leaders are pressing their members to raise money for the House GOP campaign operation and stump for candidates around the country, translating to more time away from home.

“It takes a lot of work to get back to the majority,” Ross told The Hill. “If they can’t be everything the team wants them to to be, then they start thinking maybe it's time for someone else to do it.” 

“It’s not bad for the process to get fresh new people and fresh ideas in there,” he added.

Jonathan Easley contributed from Austin.