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 HurdFirst Democrat jumps into key Texas House race to challenge Gonzales Will the real Lee Hamiltons and Olympia Snowes please stand up? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Congress drawn into pipeline cyberattack, violence in Israel 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 CurbeloDirect air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy Biden's corporate tax hike is bad for growth — try a carbon tax instead Cheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women 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 FloresThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Calls mount to start transition as Biden readies Cabinet picks Hillicon Valley: House votes to condemn QAnon | Americans worried about foreign election interference | DHS confirms request to tap protester phones House approves measure condemning QAnon, but 17 Republicans vote against it MORE (Texas) and Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerProtecting the fundamental right of all Americans to have access to the voting booth Republicans compare Ron Johnson to Joe McCarthy: NYT GOP puts pressure on Pelosi over Swalwell 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 MarchantTexas House Democrat who fled state announces congressional bid Republican Van Duyne wins race for Texas House seat Cook Political Report shifts 8 more House races toward Democrats MORE (Texas), Sean DuffySean DuffyRon Johnson: 'I may not be the best candidate' for 2022 midterms Milwaukee alderwoman launches Senate bid Wisconsin Rep. Gallagher raises nearly 5K amid Senate speculation MORE (Wis.) and John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Lobbying world Ex-Rep. John Shimkus joins lobbying firm MORE (Ill.) as well as former Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopGOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Westerman tapped as top Republican on House Natural Resources Committee | McMorris Rodgers wins race for top GOP spot on Energy and Commerce | EPA joins conservative social network Parler MORE (Utah) and former Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm If Congress can't work together to address child hunger we're doomed Ex-Rep. Mike Conaway, former aide launch lobbying firm 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 UptonEquilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — West Coast wildfires drive East Coast air quality alerts OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Western wildfires prompt evacuations in California, Oregon| House passes bill requiring EPA to regulate 'forever chemicals' in drinking water | Granholm announces new building energy codes House passes bill requiring EPA to regulate 'forever chemicals' in drinking water MORE (Mich.), Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotWe must address the declining rate of startup business launches Lobbying world OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Biden administration to evacuate Afghans who helped US l Serious differences remain between US and Iran on nuclear talks l US, Turkish officials meet to discuss security plans for Afghan airport MORE (Ohio), Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryUnnamed law enforcement banned under the new NDAA Lobbying world Senate poised to override Trump's defense bill veto MORE (Texas) and Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Ex-Rep. John Shimkus joins lobbying firm Lobbying world MORE (Ore.) — all former committee chairmen — as well as rank-and-file members such as Reps. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerBiden asks Pentagon to examine 'how and when' to mandate COVID-19 vaccine for troops Stefanik calls Cheney 'Pelosi pawn' over Jan. 6 criticism Kinzinger primary challenger picks up Cawthorn endorsement MORE (Ill.) and Ken BuckKenneth (Ken) Robert BuckGOP lawmakers demand answers on withheld restitution following Nassar revelation Hillicon Valley: Biden: Social media platforms 'killing people' | Tech executives increased political donations amid lobbying push | Top House antitrust Republican forms 'Freedom from Big Tech Caucus' Top House antitrust Republican forms 'Freedom from Big Tech Caucus' 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 TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away 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-Powell'Blue wave' Democrats eye comebacks after losing reelection Stephanie Murphy won't run for Senate seat in Florida next year Hispanic Democrats slam four Republicans over Jan. 6 vote in new ads 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 RossBiden's quiet diplomacy under pressure as Israel-Hamas fighting intensifies Biden needs to tear down bureaucratic walls and refocus Middle East programs Balancing act: Biden must redefine the US-Saudi relationship 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.