Vexed with minority status and rancor, GOP lawmakers retire
WASHINGTON — House Republicans are suffering an early exodus ahead of next year’s elections, hampering their uphill prospects for recapturing control from Democrats as lawmakers chafe under life in the minority, today’s razor-edged partisanship and the tweets and tantrums of President Trump.
Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, this week became the eighth Republican lawmaker to announce he won’t seek reelection, which the 71-year-old attributed to his loss of a leadership role atop his beloved House Agriculture Committee. While Conaway’s central Texas district is safe Republican territory, the party’s overall departures are on pace to match the 34 who stepped aside before the last elections — the GOP’s biggest total since at least 1930.
Republicans say they don’t expect this year’s departures to reach that level, but their more ominous problem is the retirements of several more junior lawmakers. Their exits put perhaps three of their seats in play for 2020 and suggest an underlying unease within the party about the hard realities of remaining in Congress.
“There’s a mood of tremendous frustration with the lack of accomplishment,” Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., said in an interview this week, days after stunning colleagues when he said he’s leaving after just two House terms. “Why run around like a crazy man when the best you can hope is maybe you’ll see some change at the margins?”
Mitchell, 62, who said he originally intended to serve longer, blamed leaders of both parties for using the nation’s problems “as a means to message for elections” instead of solving them.
He also expressed frustration with Trump’s tweets last month telling four Democratic congresswomen of color — including his Michigan colleague, Rep. Rashida Tlaib — to “go back” to their home countries, though all are American. The tweet was “below the behavior of leadership that will lead this country to a better place,” Mitchell said.
Republicans say it can be demoralizing to be in the minority in the House, where the chamber’s rules give the majority party almost unfettered control. That leaves them with little ability to accomplish much, even as they must continue the constant fundraising that consumes many lawmakers’ hours.
“When you’ve been in the majority, it’s no fun to be in the minority,” said veteran Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
But other Republicans in the Capitol and outside it — several speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating colleagues — say the frustration runs deeper. They describe worries that they won’t win back the majority in 2020, which would mean two more years of legislative futility, and exasperation over Trump’s outbursts, including his racist tweets taunting the four Democratic women.
“The White House isn’t helping the atmosphere up to this point for these guys. They’re having to answer every day for things they didn’t say or do,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. “That’s not a good place to be.”
“People are beyond exhausted,” said former Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., who didn’t seek reelection in 2018, citing frustrations with Trump. “You’re not able to get your own message out. It’s very difficult to have your own brand with this administration, it just is.”
Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the retirements are “what happens this time of year.” He said Republicans are “in a prime position to pick up seats and recapture the majority.”
Yet even as the GOP struggles to shed its image as a bastion for white men, they are losing two of the mere 13 House Republicans who are women. Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama , 43, like Michigan’s Mitchell, is vacating a deeply red seat, while the retirement of Susan Brooks, 58, could put her Indiana seat at risk.
Reps. Rob Woodall of Georgia, 49, and Pete Olson of Texas, 56, would have faced difficult races had they run for reelection. Even so, their departures are unhelpful for a party that must gain at least 18 seats to win the majority.
In next year’s House contest, history favors Democrats, who have a 235-197 majority with two vacancies and one independent.
The last time a president ran for reelection and any party gained at least 18 House seats — the minimum Republicans need to take over — was 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide netted Democrats a 37-seat pickup.
Party control of the chamber hasn’t changed during a presidential election since 1952, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower won the White House and majority Democrats lost the House.
On the practical side, the House’s 62 freshmen Democrats and the party’s other vulnerable lawmakers have energetically raised money for their reelection campaigns. Even first-termers in GOP-friendly districts in Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City and Charleston, S.C., have banked significant early funds.
The GOP’s rules for seniority are also a factor. Texas’ Conaway and fellow retiree Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, will both exhaust the self-imposed six-year limit the House GOP allows for lawmakers to chair a committee or serve as its top Republican. Bishop, 68, will be ending his run atop the Natural Resources Committee.
Another retiring Republican, Alabama Rep. Bradley Byrne, 64, is running for Senate and leaves behind a solid Republican district.
Though loss of clout was why Conaway said he was leaving, he lamented at a news conference in Midland, Texas, “The partisanship has become too intense. It’s gotten to be where it’s a lot more important about the jersey than the issue.”