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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 HurdChanging suburbs threaten GOP hold on Texas Bottom line Trump throws curveball on Afghan troop levels 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 CurbeloThe Memo: Trump furor stokes fears of unrest GOP wants more vision, policy from Trump at convention Mucarsel-Powell, Giménez to battle for Florida swing district 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 FloresHillicon 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 Patient Protection Pledge offers price transparency MORE (Texas) and Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerRepublicans call for Judiciary hearing into unrest in cities run by Democrats Scott Fitzgerald wins Wisconsin GOP primary to replace Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner Hillicon Valley: House panel grills tech CEOs during much anticipated antitrust hearing | TikTok to make code public as it pushes back against 'misinformation' | House Intel panel expands access to foreign disinformation evidence 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 MarchantWarren, Porter to headline progressive fundraiser supporting seven swing state candidates House Ethics panel recommends ,000 fine for Rep. Schweikert's campaign finance violations Candace Valenzuela wins Texas runoff to replace retiring Rep. Marchant MORE (Texas), Sean DuffySean DuffyCNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' Bottom line McCarthy blasts Pelosi's comments on Trump's weight MORE (Wis.) and John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusAsbestos ban stalls in Congress amid partisan fight Women rise on K Street — slowly Bottom line MORE (Ill.) as well as former Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopHillicon 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 OVERNIGHT ENERGY:  House passes sweeping clean energy bill | Pebble Mine CEO resigns over secretly recorded comments about government officials  | Corporations roll out climate goals amid growing pressure to deliver MORE (Utah) and former Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayBottom line House Republican introduces amendment to include farm aid in stopgap funding bill Live coverage: Democrats, Republicans seek to win PR battle in final House impeachment hearing 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 UptonWarren, Porter to headline progressive fundraiser supporting seven swing state candidates Preventing next pandemic requires new bill's global solutions Hillicon Valley: Judge's ruling creates fresh hurdle for TikTok | House passes bills to secure energy sector against cyberattacks | Biden campaign urges Facebook to remove Trump posts spreading 'falsehoods' MORE (Mich.), Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotRepublican fears grow over rising Democratic tide Speaker Pelosi, House Democrats leave town, fail the American people Kate Schroder in Ohio among Democratic challengers squelching GOP hopes for the House MORE (Ohio), Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryChamber of Commerce endorses former White House physician Ronny Jackson for Congress Overnight Defense: Senate passes stopgap spending bill hours before shutdown deadline | Brief military mentions in chaotic first Trump, Biden debate | Lawmakers grills Pentagon officials over Germany drawdown Lawmakers grill Pentagon over Trump's Germany drawdown MORE (Texas) and Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenRace heats up for top GOP post on powerful Energy and Commerce Committee Asbestos ban stalls in Congress amid partisan fight Hillicon Valley: Judge's ruling creates fresh hurdle for TikTok | House passes bills to secure energy sector against cyberattacks | Biden campaign urges Facebook to remove Trump posts spreading 'falsehoods' MORE (Ore.) — all former committee chairmen — as well as rank-and-file members such as Reps. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerFox News reporter defends confirming Atlantic piece despite Trump backlash: 'I feel very confident' GOP lawmaker defends Fox reporter after Trump calls for her firing Lindsey Graham: 'QAnon is bats--- crazy' MORE (Ill.) and Ken BuckKenneth (Ken) Robert BuckThe rhetoric of techlash: A source of clarity or confusion? Hillicon Valley: Congressional antitrust report rips tech firms | Facebook tightens ban on QAnon content | Social media groups urged to weed out disinformation targeting minority voters Congressional antitrust report rips tech firms for stifling competition 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 TrumpNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter DC correspondent on the death of Michael Reinoehl: 'The folks I know in law enforcement are extremely angry about it' Late night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study 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-PowellHouse Democrats target Hispanic voters in battlegrounds with new barrage of ads Disinformation, QAnon efforts targeting Latino voters ramp up ahead of presidential election Florida Democrat asks FBI to investigate anti-Semitic, racist disinformation 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 RossRep. Ross Spano loses Florida GOP primary amid campaign finance scrutiny Israelis and Palestinians must realize that each needs to give, not just take Court opens door to annexing the West Bank — and the consequences could be disastrous 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.