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Republican retirements raise questions about GOP optimism in 2020

Serving in the minority is a new experience for most House Republicans

Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, announced this week that he is not running for reelection. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, announced this week that he is not running for reelection. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The recent string of House Republican retirements — even those from ruby-red districts — have raised new questions about whether GOP lawmakers are pessimistic about winning back the House in 2020.

Some Republican political operatives were split on what the recent retirements say about lawmakers’ political calculations, and whether they’re heading for the exits at the prospect of spending a few more years in the minority.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Chris Pack noted retirements happen every cycle, and that the recent exits weren’t raising concerns. 

“This is nothing out of the ordinary,” Pack said. 

“If anyone thinks they can accurately predict what’s going to happen politically 14 months from now, let alone 14 days from now, I think they’re sadly mistaken,” said Rob Simms, a former NRCC executive director. “So I wouldn’t read too much into many of these retirements.”

But not everyone agreed.

“I think it speaks to a broader trend that people don’t feel confident that Republicans are going to take back the House,” said one GOP strategist, who noted more retirements could fuel pessimism among lawmakers about winning the majority.

Republicans need a net gain of 19 or 20 seats in 2020 to flip the House, depending on the outcome of next week’s competitive special election in North Carolina’s 9th District. And while Republicans may have an advantage against Democrats who are defending seats President Donald Trump won handily in 2016, some operatives acknowledged flipping the House will be an uphill climb.

Life in the minority

Most lawmakers who have announced their retirements so far say they want to spend more time with their families. But for a majority of the GOP conference, governing in the minority is a new experience, and not a particularly pleasant one, even for members who are not facing competitive reelection races.

Of the 12 Republican lawmakers who have announced their retirement, six haven’t served in the minority before. Seven were in races that Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates as Solid Republican.

“I think the retirements have a lot more to do with getting used to how bad it is being in the minority and how useless being in the minority is, and the prospects for that changing in November,” said Texas GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak.

Mackowiak said Republicans do have a path to winning back the House, but it is “certainly uphill.” He noted control of the House has rarely changed after just two years. The last time a party flipped the chamber after just two years in the minority was during the 1954 elections, when Democrats won the House.

Simms did not think the recent retirements meant lawmakers made the calculation that the majority is out of reach in 2020. He noted that many Republicans elected in 2010 and 2012 campaigned on being “citizen legislators” and not spending the rest of their careers in Washington.

That was the case for Rep. Bill Flores, who announced on Monday that he would not run for a sixth term. The Texas Republican said when he first ran in 2010 that he would not run for more than six terms.

Flores dismissed in an interview Thursday any speculation that he was retiring because Republicans were in the minority, or that his suburban district that Trump carried by 17 points could be more competitive.

“None of those things are true,” Flores said. He later added, “I never intended to make this a career.”

While Flores acknowledged it is more difficult to achieve his policy goals in the minority, he said it did not affect his decision to retire, noting he can still influence policy through bipartisan legislation and amendments.

Early exits

It’s not surprising that lawmakers announce their retirements after a lengthy August recess, where they spend time with their families and have time to reflect on whether they want to continue to make long commutes to Washington.

So far the number of retirements has outpaced the 2018 cycle, when a wave of Republican retirements, particularly in competitive seats, boosted Democrats’ effort to flip the House. In September of 2017, five lawmakers had announced their retirement. Fifteen have announced retirements as of Friday morning, 12 Republicans and three Democrats. An average of 22 House lawmakers retire each Congress, according to Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales.

Pack said Republicans tend to see more turnover due to term limits on committee posts in the GOP conference. Lawmakers are limited to three terms as chairman or ranking member of a committee, although they can apply for a waiver to serve an additional term. 

Some term limited lawmakers insist they’re sticking around. Texas GOP Rep. Kevin Brady, the ranking member of Ways and Means Committee, is still running for reelection, his office confirmed Thursday. Brady took over as top Republican of Ways and Means in 2015, when Paul D. Ryan left the post to become speaker. 

But it’s not clear whether another Texas Republican facing a term limit will still run. A spokesman for Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in an email that he had not spoken with his boss about plans for retirement.

Flores was the fifth Texas Republican to retire in recent weeks, which he attributed to the state’s early primary in March. Democrats are heavily targeting Texas, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee opened an office in Austin earlier this year. Democrats have latched onto the term “Texodus” to relish in the recent retirements, which they view as a byproduct of Republicans feeling the heat ahead of 2020.

“It’s clear the continued drain of having to defend their toxic, unpopular agenda and the misery of serving in the minority is what’s driving Washington Republicans to head for the exits in record numbers,” DCCC spokesman Cole Leiter said in a statement Thursday.

But Flores said he isn’t sensing any concern among his GOP colleagues about the recent exits. Republicans are still expecting more retirements, given historical trends.

“I haven’t seen anybody pull the fire alarm,” Flores said.

Correction 12:44 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Matt Mackowiak.

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