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 HurdThe Hill's Morning Report - Report of Bolton tell-all manuscript roils Trump defense The Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' 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 CurbeloRepublicans can't exploit the left's climate extremism without a better idea Progressive Latino group launches first incumbent protection campaign The Memo: Bad polls for Trump shake GOP 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 FloresDemocrats push to end confidentiality for oil companies that don't add ethanol The Hill's Campaign Report: Warren, Sanders overtake Biden in third-quarter fundraising The Hill's Morning Report — Trump broadens call for Biden probes MORE (Texas) and Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerHouse votes to impeach Trump House impeaches Trump for abuse of power Judiciary members battle over whether GOP treated fairly in impeachment hearings 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 MarchantHouse GOP wants Senate Republicans to do more on impeachment Ethics sends memo to lawmakers on SCIF etiquette Ethics panel investigating Rep. Hastings over relationship with staffer MORE (Texas), Sean DuffySean DuffyGOP leaders encourage retiring lawmakers to give up committee posts Ex-Tea Party lawmakers turn heads on K Street Why the Wisconsin special election could decide the 2020 presidential election MORE (Wis.) and John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusConservative Club for Growth backs Texas House Republican's primary challenger Republicans eye legislation to rival Democrats' sweeping climate plan Overnight Energy: House passes sweeping bill on 'forever chemicals' | Green groups question Pentagon about burning of toxic chemicals | Steyer plan would open US to climate refugees MORE (Ill.) as well as former Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopOvernight Energy: Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel | GOP lawmakers push back on bill to make greener refrigerators, air conditioners | Green groups sue Trump over California fracking plans Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel Overnight Energy: Critics warn latest environmental rollback could hit minorities, poor hardest | Coalition forms to back Trump rollback | Coal-fired plants closing at near-record pace MORE (Utah) and former Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayLive coverage: Democrats, Republicans seek to win PR battle in final House impeachment hearing Laughter erupts at hearing after Democrat fires back: Trump 'has 5 Pinocchios on a daily basis' Live coverage: Schiff closes with speech highlighting claims of Trump's corruption 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 UptonDCCC to run ads tying 11 House Republicans to Trump remarks on entitlements The rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2019 The Memo: Impeachment's scars cut deep with Trump, say those who know him MORE (Mich.), Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotDCCC to run ads tying 11 House Republicans to Trump remarks on entitlements Koch network could target almost 200 races in 2020, official says Judiciary Committee abruptly postpones vote on articles of impeachment MORE (Ohio), Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryBroad, bipartisan rebuke for proposal to pull troops from Africa Lawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown GOP senator on Trump soliciting foreign interference: 'Those are just statements' MORE (Texas) and Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenHillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Wyden asks NSA to investigate White House cybersecurity | Commerce withdraws Huawei rule after Pentagon objects | Warren calls on Brazil to drop Greenwald charges Bipartisan lawmakers call for watchdog probe into government telecom office Conservative groups aim to sink bipartisan fix to 'surprise' medical bills MORE (Ore.) — all former committee chairmen — as well as rank-and-file members such as Reps. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerPentagon exodus extends 'concerning,' 'baffling' trend of acting officials in key roles Republican group asks 'what is Trump hiding' in Times Square billboard Koch campaign touts bipartisan group behind ag labor immigration bill MORE (Ill.) and Ken BuckKenneth (Ken) Robert BuckSmaller companies testify against Big Tech's 'monopoly power' The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday House passes bill that would give legal status to thousands of undocumented farmworkers 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 TrumpWarren: Dershowitz presentation 'nonsensical,' 'could not follow it' Bolton told Barr he was concerned Trump did favors for autocrats: report Dershowitz: Bolton allegations would not constitute impeachable offense 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-PowellVulnerable Democrats signal support for impeachment articles this week Vulnerable Democrats swing behind impeachment push Democrats launch bilingual ad campaign off drug pricing bill 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 RossFears of 'What's next?' will influence Iran's — and the world's — reactions The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Trump has had a rough October Trump's aversion to alliances is making the world a more dangerous place 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.