What's causing the congressional 'Texodus'?

What's causing the congressional 'Texodus'?
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The 23-member Texas Republican delegation is the largest state delegation in the U.S. House GOP caucus (Florida is second with 14). Six Texas Republicans have announced they will not seek re-election in 2020. They are Reps. Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayIntelligence watchdog huddles with members as impeachment push grows What's causing the congressional 'Texodus'? Here are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 MORE, Bill FloresWilliam (Bill) Hose FloresThe Hill's Campaign Report: Warren, Sanders overtake Biden in third-quarter fundraising The Hill's Morning Report — Trump broadens call for Biden probes Pete Sessions announces bid for Bill Flores's Texas House seat MORE, Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdGOP lawmaker: Trump administration 'playing checkers' in Syria while others are 'playing chess' Sunday shows — Mulvaney seeks to tamp down firestorm over quid pro quo comments, Doral decision Hurd: No Ukrainian officials have told State Department 'they felt like their arms were being twisted' MORE, Kenny MarchantKenny Ewell MarchantBlood cancer patients deserve equal access to the cure What's causing the congressional 'Texodus'? House Ethics Committee reviewing two GOP lawmakers over campaign finance MORE, Pete OlsonPeter (Pete) Graham OlsonWhat's causing the congressional 'Texodus'? Here are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Texas Republicans sound alarm about rapidly evolving state MORE and Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryPelosi arrives in Jordan with bipartisan congressional delegation Furious Republicans prepare to rebuke Trump on Syria Five ways Trump's Syria decision spells trouble MORE.

There are multiple reasons for this “Texodus,” but three predominate: The high likelihood that the GOP will continue to be in the minority in 2021, GOP term-limits for committee chairs/ranking members and the need to campaign harder than before in order to win in 2020. 

But while there is a tendency to view a retirement as having a negative impact on a party’s ability to retain a seat, not all of these retirements are bad news for Republican retention efforts.

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A first explanation is the near-universal belief that the Republican Party is not going to flip the U.S. House in 2020, and thus that Republican House members will once again find themselves in the minority during the 117th Congress (2021-23).  The U.S. House is an extremely majoritarian institution, where the majority party calls the shots, and the power and influence of the minority party’s representatives is limited.  

In a similar vein, Texas has the fifth earliest filing deadline in the country (December 9, 2019), with a majority of state deadlines coming in the spring or early summer of 2020. The Lone Star State also has the earliest congressional primaries (March 3, tied with four other states). Thus to provide their fellow Republicans with fair warning in order to contemplate running and then prepare for the March primary, responsible Texas Republicans need to announce their retirement earlier than their colleagues in most other states. This could mean that the “Texodus” is a harbinger of things to come across the country; that is, even more GOP retirements could occur as other state filing deadlines approach in the coming months.

A second explanation is the House GOP rules that place a six-year term-limit on serving as the chair or ranking member of a committee. As a result of term limits, two of the six retiring Texans were being forced at the end of 2020 to relinquish their position as ranking committee member: Conaway (Agriculture) and Thornberry (Armed Services).

A third explanation is that while three of these seats are in safe ruby red districts, three are not. And in these latter three, the heightened Democratic competition expected in 2020 is a motivating factor for retirement. 

Over the past three election cycles, Hurd saw his margin of victory in the competitive 23rd District progressively shrink from 2.1 percent in 2014, to 1.3 percent in 2016 to 0.4 percent in 2018. Hurd is arguably the most skilled and hardest working campaigner in the Texas GOP delegation. But with Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE at the top of the Republican ticket, Hurd’s prospects of victory in 2020 were a coin-flip at best.

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The 2018 general election was the first in which either Marchant or Olson faced a serious Democratic challenge, and both were exposed as being politically out of shape on the campaign trail. Marchant and Olson were acutely aware that in 2020 they would face a Democratic challenger who would be even more motivated and better funded than in 2018. National and local Democrats smell blood in the water after the Democratic challengers came so close in 2018 (losing by 3.1 percent to Marchant and 4.9 percent to Olson).

The seats held by Conaway (Texas-11), Flores (Texas-17) and Thornberry (Texas-13) are safe Republican seats. The other three are much more competitive, and while conventional wisdom suggests losing an incumbent undermines a party’s ability to retain a seat, in these three cases the retirements have resulted in a net positive effect on GOP retention prospects. 

Hurd’s departure is the only retirement that is a serious blow to GOP efforts to retain control of a district, and even Hurd would have had a difficult time winning in 2020 with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. While several solid candidates are competing for the GOP nomination, they will be hard-pressed to defeat the likely Democratic candidate, 2018 nominee Gina Ortiz Jones.

Olson’s departure is a boost for GOP efforts to retain the 22nd District, as his ability and motivation to run the type of high-octane campaign needed to ensure victory in 2020 were in question after his lackluster 2018 performance. Republicans have several outstanding candidates waiting in the wings. 

Marchant’s departure can also be seen as a positive for the Republican Party, as the 68-year-old did not demonstrate that he has what it takes to mount an energetic and effective general election campaign.

Marchant will likely be replaced on the GOP slate by Beth Van Duyne, a former Iriving mayor and Trump administration HUD official. She has not been free of controversy. But if she can avoid gaffes and unforced errors on the campaign trail, she should provide the GOP with a better chance than Marchant of holding Texas’ 24th District.

Mark P. Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s fellow in political science and the Joseph D. Jamail chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University as well as a co-author of “Texas Politics Today.” Follow him on Twitter @MarkPJonesTX.