Welcome to a special edition of FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): On Thursday evening, GOP Rep. Will Hurd of Texas’s 23rd Congressional District said that he would not seek reelection in 2020. Hurd is the sixth GOP representative to announce retirement in the past two weeks and the eighth so far in 2019.
There were, of course, also a lot of GOP retirements in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections — at least 23, according to our count.
So what’s happening this year? Should we expect another big wave of GOP retirements? And more importantly, what do we think is driving Republicans to retire (or even leave the party): Is it fear of a primary challenger because they aren’t “Trumpy” enough, or is it fear that the GOP will not win back the House majority in 2020?
Let’s unpack all of this — and what it could mean for the GOP caucus moving forward.
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I think it’s a bit early to draw conclusions from the number of retirements right now. These things can come in batches. We’ve had a string of Republican retirements, but maybe there will be a string of Democratic retirements in the fall and it will even out.
That said, if the political environment looks bad for Republicans, yes, we can probably expect another big wave of GOP retirements.
Research has shown that when politicians think their party is in a tough spot, they are more likely to retire. (Note: That isn’t necessarily the same as there being a correlation between retirements and losing elections! Politicians aren’t great pundits.)
sarahf: That’s fair. But what do we know, if anything, of the eight GOP retirements so far. Is there a pattern there?
geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Well, two of them — Rob Bishop of Utah and Mike Conaway of Texas — would lose their ranking status on their committees because of GOP caucus rules that permit someone to lead a committee for only three terms, so that probably factored into their decision.
perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I expect we will see some Republicans retire in safe districts just because because being in the House minority is boring and powerless — and it’s very likely, looking at current data like the congressional generic ballot, that the GOP will remain in the minority in 2021.
geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, historically, Perry, you’re probably right. The last time the incumbent presidential party lost control of the House in a midterm and then gained it back in the subsequent presidential election was in 1948, when the Democrats won the House after losing it in 1946.
nrakich: One interesting pattern in the eight House GOP retirements is that three of the retirees are from Texas — the most of any state. Obviously, there’s been a lot of buzz about Democrats breaking through there electorally, so maybe this is a sign that Texas Republicans think that is a real threat.
And two of those retirees sit in vulnerable seats — Pete Olson (in Texas’s 22nd District) and Hurd (in Texas’s 23rd District).
sarahf: What do we know about the districts of the retiring members, Nathaniel? Do they all lean slightly Democratic?
nrakich: Well, the Texas 23rd has been a swing district for a while. It is 4 points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole, according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric, but Hillary Clinton won it by 3 points in 2016, a 6-point margin swing from former President Obama’s 2012 performance there.
In fact, it’s one of just three Clinton seats still held by a Republican, which is why the Hurd retirement was such a blow to the GOP.
geoffrey.skelley: But one thing to keep in mind with the seeming glut of Texas retirements is that Texas has one of the earliest candidate filing deadlines of any state — December 2019 — because of its March 2020 primary. So if Texas members want to retire, they probably want to do it as early as possible to give their parties enough of a heads-up to find new candidates and get organized for an open-seat race.
nrakich: That’s a good point, Geoffrey, and one of the Texas districts — Conaway’s — isn’t competitive. But the Texas 22nd could be a dark horse. Mitt Romney won it by 25 points, then President Trump won it by just 8 points.
So it’s still red, but it’s moving rapidly leftward. Olson won reelection by just 5 points in 2018.
perry: But in these districts where we have retirements, I would say Democrats only have a real chance in three of them (two in Texas that Nathaniel referred to and Rob Woodall in Georgia’s 7th District).
Broadly speaking, these members are not retiring because they are about to lose.
sarahf: Is it fair to say then that there isn’t one clear-cut reason for why we’re seeing more GOP retirements this year? It sounds as if there are three plausible explanations that could explain it: 1) When a party goes from the majority to the minority, like the Republicans did in the House in 2018, you can expect to see some turnover; 2) some GOP members may be retiring because they think they face a tough general election; 3) some GOP members may be retiring because they’re increasingly not aligned with President Trump and the direction the party is moving in.
Does that seem right?
nrakich: Yeah, the Trump factor is a big part of it. For instance, Hurd, Olson and Paul Mitchell of Michigan (who is also retiring) all spoke out against Trump’s racist tweets in which he told Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” where they came from.
perry: And Martha Roby of Alabama had been a Trump critic in 2016 over the Access Hollywood video tap in which Trump talked about groping women. But then she had to backtrack from that criticism in order to keep her seat in 2018, when she faced a tough primary challenge.
So I can imagine that, even if she didn’t say it in public, Roby can see where the GOP is headed and that loyalty to Trump — even in the midst of him talking about grabbing women “by the pussy” — is going to be required. And she may have decided she did not want to do that.
Same with Hurd. As a black member of Congress, he was going to keep getting asked about Trump’s racial views. And I assume that was not something he was particularly enthusiastic about doing — and that he disagrees with Trump more than he can let on.
sarahf: I think that’s right, Perry. I guess I just don’t understand why for some Republicans being a vocal opponent of Trump means they’re likely to get a primary challenger, whereas in other instances they don’t and can just opt not to seek reelection. Like with Hurd, he wasn’t necessarily in danger of facing a primary challenger, right?
perry: No, I just think some of these people are not excited about defending Trump all the time — electoral politics aside.
Take Texas’s Conaway, who is also retiring. He’s on the House Intel Committee and was considered a more moderating voice on that committee, but it was dominated by Devin Nunes — and it was clear a Nunes type was going to have more influence. So in a way, Conaway was also not Trumpy-enough.
geoffrey.skelley: And Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, one of the other two Clinton-district Republicans in the House besides Hurd, has a primary challenger because he hasn’t been sufficiently pro-Trump.
sarahf: So … in other words, there’s no real pattern for what gets you a primary challenger or not, for speaking out against the president?
geoffrey.skelley: Well, it’s a small sample. Not that many Republicans speak out publicly against Trump.
sarahf: And those who do have left in some fashion?
perry: I interpret a lot of these retirements like that of former House Speaker Paul Ryan in 2018. They don’t really agree with Trump on racial issues, and they also don’t want to be asked about his comments all the time. And because they think the Republicans are going to have little power in the future, they move on.
geoffrey.skelley: Despite his criticism of Trump, Amash didn’t get a primary challenger in 2018, but now he’s left the party in part because he got several primary challengers for 2020 and renomination was looking rough. Now he hopes to win reelection as an independent.
perry: Yeah, I think in the case of Bob Corker and Jeff Flake in 2018 and Hurd and Amash in 2020, it’s not clear whether they already had one foot out the door, then criticized Trump knowing they’d get a primary challenge. Or if they made those comments and that inspired the primary challengers.
perry: The causation is a bit complicated.
nrakich: Right, Perry — Hurd may have started to express his disapproval of the president only after he had already decided to retire. His Trump Score — how often he votes in line with Trump’s stated position on bills — was 94.8 percent in 2017-18, which is very high, especially considering that he occupies a Clinton district. But this year, he’s been a lot more willing to break with Trump; his Trump Score for the current Congress is just 51.2 percent.
sarahf: So what does this mean for Republicans? Do they risk alienating voters from demographic blocs that could be important for them? As mentioned earlier, Hurd was the only black member in the GOP House caucus. And as Politico wrote this morning, “There are more men named Jim in the House than Republican women running for reelection.”
nrakich: Yep, it obviously means the GOP caucus is only going to get whiter and more male.
perry: The racial and gender issues are real but also maybe overblown. The Republicans are, in terms of the House in particular, very white and male. Trump voters overall in 2016 were about 90 percent white.
So I think part of what is happening is a certain kind of woman or minority is being purged. Women and minorities who act on that part of their identity probably can’t survive in this party — for example, there isn’t room in the party for a black person who criticizes Trump on racial issues like Hurd or a woman like Roby who takes him on over the “Access Hollywood” tape.
But I think someone like Liz Cheney is fine (she will probably not attack Trump on gender) and, in fact, Republicans might want her to be speaker in the future more than House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
It’s not that the party doesn’t value women or minorities, but it values more those who won’t promote more liberal values on race and gender.
geoffrey.skelley: And with the hit Hispanic Republicans took in 2018 — Carlos Curbelo and David Valadao lost, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen retired, Raúl Labrador ran unsuccessfully for governor in Idaho — the number of nonwhite House Republicans is even smaller than it was before. In fact, only 10 percent of the nonwhite members in all of Congress are Republican.
nrakich: I agree with what Perry is saying, but I think it’s a big problem for Republicans’ chances of expanding their voting coalition in a diversifying country if nonwhite and/or female voters look at Republican politicians and don’t see anyone who looks like them.
perry: But if Ben Carson wanted to run for the Senate, I think the party would roll out the red carpet for him. My thought is that Republicans are going to start looking harder to recruit women and minorities who agree with the party’s views on racial and gender issues — and by doing that, they will eventually increase their numbers.
In Kentucky, for instance, the Republican attorney general candidate, a black man named Daniel Cameron who is a former Mitch McConnell staffer, praised Trump on Tuesday in the midst of the fallout over Trump’s comments directed at Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings and Baltimore that have been condemned as racist.
If more women and minorities are willing to embrace Trump in the midst of comments like that, I think other Republicans will welcome them with open arms.
In other words, I think that, for now, yes, the Republicans are struggling to keep women and minorities in office. But I think we are going to see more Trumpy women and minority candidates in the future as the party realigns around Trump’s values.
geoffrey.skelley: The House GOP is already busy actively recruiting women and minority candidates, even if won’t pay off for a while.
nrakich: But that’s still a purge of a different kind. The GOP will lose people who value diversity, in the mold of, say, former President George W. Bush, further cementing it as the party of Trumpism.
It seems as if … the answer is yes?
And Hurd’s retirement is another data point to help confirm that?
geoffrey.skelley: I would say indubitably.
perry: I think that on the issues of race and gender, yes. (Maybe less on say, trade.) Like in 2015, Nikki Haley was involved in taking down the Confederate flag at the state capitol in South Carolina, and Marco Rubio pushed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in 2013. So my thought is that Haley and Rubio can remain Republicans in good standing who are minorities — as long as they are not pushing issues like that anymore.
nrakich: The GOP certainly already appears to be Trump’s party in public (Republicans rarely speak out against him and almost always vote in line with his positions), but there are still lots of rumors that some Republican politicians privately find Trump embarrassing. If all of those people (most of whom came up in the pre-Trump GOP) eventually retire and are replaced by people who are inspired to run by Trumpism — or, at the very least, aren’t bothered by it — the party will be converted to its core.
perry: And that’s what I think is happening.
geoffrey.skelley: The uptick in retirements certainly bears that out.
sarahf: I do wonder though if, say, Trump loses in 2020, if we won’t see another shift among Republicans in the opposite direction. Or at least some kind of reversion to what the party was like pre-2016.
In other words, what I’m trying to say is trying to unpack how much of this is because of Trump is very hard for me to process in the moment.
nrakich: I think that will be very interesting to watch, Sarah. Would a Trump loss in 2020 be seen as a sign that Trumpism actually harms the party electorally? Or will Republicans still look to 2016 as a template and perhaps come up with a reason why they lost in 2020? (“Well, we only lost by a few points, and Joe Biden had an advantage in Pennsylvania because he was born in Scranton…”)
The battle over that could make the internal divisions in the Democratic primary right now look like playtime.
perry: I think that will be hard because we now have a lot of Trumpy Republicans in the Senate, House and governor mansions. Like the future stars of the Republican Party, I think, are more like Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida (more in the mold of Trump) than Jeb Bush-style Republicans.
geoffrey.skelley: Part of me thinks it’s possible, but then again, the GOP essentially ignored the “autopsy report” the RNC put together after Romney lost in 2012 that pushed a more inclusive approach for the party moving forward.
So I’m skeptical that you’d see a fast shift even if Trump loses handily in 2020. His imprints are all over the party now.
perry: I think a 2020 loss won’t change the GOP in an instant. The trends toward it being organized around a coalition of people resisting changing U.S. demographic changes were a long time coming. Trump did not invent all of that. He just said some of the quiet parts out loud — “Build the Wall,” etc.
geoffrey.skelley: Right, Trump is not a cause. He’s just an accelerator of something already happening.
perry: Like in my view, Mitt Romney is getting less vocal, not more vocal, about attacking Trump since he joined the Senate, even as Trump continues to make more racist comments. Romney sees where the wind is blowing. He gets a ton of blowback when he attacks Trump, and that weakens his influence in GOP politics.
nrakich: I agree with that, but I think some people (Like Hurd?? He has been visiting Iowa and New Hampshire and is a rumored 2024 candidate!) might try to run to say that the GOP needs a softer, gentler approach, especially if Trump gets drubbed in 2020.
geoffrey.skelley: They may say it, Nathaniel, but I’m skeptical it will take. Though I can see someone like Haley straddling the line on that if/when she runs in 2024. Speaking of Haley, she tweeted out earlier today that Trump’s tweet about Cummings’s house getting robbed was “so unnecessary,” so she’s not completely afraid of publicly calling out the president. But she also worked to build a solid relationship with Trump as his ambassador to the United Nations with an eye on a future presidential run.
perry: If Will Hurd thinks the best strategy to defeat Trumpism is a 2024 candidacy, he is misguided.
Trumpism is shaping the party right now — and in four more years, whether Trump wins or loses in 2020, that force will have been dominating conservative politics for eight years (2015-2023).
That can’t be reversed quickly.