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A new year, like a new broom, sweeps clean, at least for a while. Before and after the start of this still minty-fresh jaunt around the sun called 2018, several Republican lawmakers have decided not to seek re-election. The rush for the out doors will include the retirements of relative newcomers to Congress and an institutional lion of the Senate.
These exits, the ones that came before, and those likely to follow in the months between now and November have dire implications for a Republican party struggling to find its future stars amid an increasingly depleted cast of existing characters.
In one of the latest of these departures, on Jan. 31, Trey Gowdy, the once-fiery South Carolina GOP congressman who was chairman of the House Oversight Committee, announced his plans to retire at the end of his current term. Gowdy made his bones in Congress in 2013, in the dustup over Internal Revenue Service officials thought to be singling out Tea Party groups for tax scrutiny.
In the years since, he’s grown disillusioned with sausage-making on Capitol Hill. Politico reported on Jan. 31 that “Gowdy rarely participated in House GOP events, rarely attending the weekly GOP conference, for example. He often talked privately about resenting the increasingly partisan atmosphere. And he loved to say that he wished he was home watching cheesy Hallmark movies with his wife.”
“Whatever skills I may have are better utilized in a courtroom than in Congress, and I enjoy our justice system more than our political system,” Gowdy told Politico. A former prosecutor, he plans to return to a role in the justice system. He’s been so exhausted by the legislative process in D.C., he turned down an almost certain federal judgeship in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
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Gowdy’s exit comes about a month after Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch announced, on Jan. 2, his plans not to seek re-election. Hatch, a seven-term veteran of the Senate and the longest-serving Republican there, said he'd retire at year's end, despite Trump's begging, pleading and fulsome praise.
“When the president visited Utah last month, he said I was a fighter. I’ve always been a fighter. I was an amateur boxer in my youth, and I’ve brought that fighting spirit with me to Washington,” Hatch said by video. “But every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves. And for me, that time is soon approaching.”
In between Hatch and Gowdy came the others.
On Jan. 9, Republican Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he would not seek re-election in 2018. On Wednesday, Jan. 10, Royce’s fellow southern Californian, Rep. Darrell Issa, former once-feared chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said he was hangin’ ‘em up after nine terms. Issa was the 31st Republican to walk away from a re-election bid in 2018.
And in the week before Gowdy pulled the plug, GOP Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, the first-term House Appropriations Committee chairman, and GOP Rep. Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, said they wouldn’t contend in districts thought to be seriously in play for Democrats.
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Retirements from Congress are hardly party-specific, of course. Democrats in Congress have been dropping out, for reasons of exhaustion with the partisan atmosphere, and in response to various allegations of wrongdoing (Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers among the two most prominent Dems to be caught up in sexual harassment charges).
But if you sense there’s a louder, more populated Republican sprint to the exits, you’re right. Going away.
In the past year, Republicans have watched as a number of their most loyal water carriers, kings and queens of Fox News talking points, have declared plans to walk away or done so already: Chaffetz of Utah; Smith, Barton and Farenthold of Texas; Ros-Lehtinen of Florida; Dent in Pennsylvania; Franks in Arizona. Russell Berman of The Atlantic has created an exhaustive, constantly updated tracker of who’s leaving Congress from both parties. Berman’s reporting makes clear how lopsided this is — against the Republicans:
“The trend to this point gives a distinct edge to the Democrats. While roughly the same number of lawmakers in both parties are leaving their seats to run for higher office, just eight House Democrats are retiring outright or have already resigned, compared with 24 Republicans. ... Including those members who are leaving to run for another office, there will be 16 open House seats vacated by Democrats and 35 for Republicans. Democratic victories last November in gubernatorial and state legislative races in Virginia and New Jersey could spur more retirements among Republicans worried about the national political environment under Trump.
“And although Democrats must defend far more Senate seats than Republicans in 2018 — including several in states that Donald Trump won — all of the party’s incumbents are currently running for re-election. The retirements of [Tennessee Sen. Bob] Corker and [Arizona Sen. Jeff] Flake, along with a Democratic victory in December’s special election in Alabama, give Democrats an outside chance at retaking the Senate majority. In the House, they’ll need to pick up 24 seats, and the more Republicans retire in districts that Hillary Clinton carried last year, the more the GOP majority is at risk.”
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For at least some of these Republicans, weary of the legislative convulsions of the Trump administration, retirement is or seems to be about renewing their relationship with the principles that got them into office in the first place — the kind of thing you can only do, in the current environment, once you’ve announced your plans to get out of office. Jeff Flake is a perfect example. Once a reliable Republican megaphone, the first-term Arizona senator announced plans to quit and quickly became an outspoken opponent of the president*, condemning Trump's attacks on the media and, on Feb. 6, chastising Trump on the Senate floor for saying Democrats who didn't applaud for him at the State of the Union were treasonous.
Arizona Sen. John McCain is another case in point, or will be, for the worst possible reasons. In much of his career, and certainly during the 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns, McCain stood by Republican ideals, values and ideology. But even then, there were signs of a moderate, practical streak inside “the Maverick.” It's hard to forget his quietly epic rebuke of a citizen at an October 2008 campaign rally, a woman who tried to paint Barack Obama as a shadowy Muslim Other. McCain wasn't having it.
More recently, McCain has opposed Trump, picking his spots — most recently and notably on Feb. 5, when he and Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons pressed for a bipartisan immigration bill that would exempt young people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — the so-called DREAMers — from deportation, giving them permanent legal status. In a sharp rejection of the Trump immigration agenda, the McCain-Coons bill would also provide no immediate funding for the controversial southern-border wall, a cornerstone of Trump’s campaign.
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McCain hasn’t formally announced his retirement yet, but one spur for his legislative boldness is certainly existential. Last July, McCain was diagnosed with a primary glioblastoma, an aggressive and deadly brain cancer. He’s since pursued a course of treatment that includes radiation and chemotherapy.
The nature of the illness — he told CBS’ 60 Minutes he has “a very poor prognosis” — and an evolving centrism at odds with the administration suggest a formal McCain retirement is just a matter of time.
His break from Trumpian orthodoxy, along with other Republican lawmakers on their way out, are a problem for an already beleaguered GOP. As the year unfolds, fresh revelations from the Russia hacking scandal emerge, and more sordid truths about the party’s standard-bearer come to light — Stormy Daniels caught us all off guard, for a minute — it’s likely to get worse.
Some retiring Republicans are in districts that just barely went for Trump in 2016; others are caught up in one investigation or another, or are resigning their jobs to end those investigations. But in the time of House Trump, there’s no escaping the self-preservation built into their actions.
It’s gotta be hard enough going back to the Republican constituents in your districts, attending town halls and defending your own behavior as a public servant. No one in his or her right mind looks forward to defending (or, God forbid, explaining) the actions of the man who leads your party. Who signs up for that?
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Besides the raw count of retiring congressional Republicans, other factors work against the GOP in 2018, and beyond:
Party affiliation (Which party voters identify with):
Since Trump took office, a range of opinion polls have been largely, and often consistently, downbeat for the GOP in terms of people’s general affiliation or self-identification. According to a December survey released by Gallup, more adult Americans identify as Democrats or independents who lean left compared to those who identify as Republicans or rightward-leaning independents.
“Forty-four percent of U.S. adults identify as Democrats or are independents who lean to the Democratic Party, while 37% are Republican identifiers or leaners,” Gallup reported on Dec. 4. “Democrats have maintained an edge of between five and nine percentage points on this measure of party affiliation throughout 2017, after holding a narrow advantage in late 2016.”
The trend goes back even further. Gallup reported that, using its annual non-tracking poll data going back to the early 90’s, “Democrats have averaged a five-point advantage over Republicans in party affiliation, with leads in all but four years.”
Party registration: (Which party voters formally register with):
In 2016, Democrats made voter registration gains in Arizona and Colorado, two states thought to be surrogates for the rest of the purple American West. And in January, The Associated Press reported that Democrats maintain a healthy, 75K edge in registered voters in Nevada, once a GOP stronghold but a state subject to rapidly changing demographics, and rapidly growing Latino communities.
Trump’s tireless campaign call for a wall on the border with Mexico hasn’t gone over well with them; neither has Trump’s bloodless, clinical decision to make DREAMers subject to deportation to countries they don’t even know. Trump, or his proxies in Congress, will pay the price for their unhappiness, sooner and later. Democratic party registrations are a leading indicator of how deep that unhappiness will be. Nationally.
For the Republican party, losing its rising stars and the hard drive of its more moderate past, the consequences of their departures are considerable and resonant, this year and two years down the road.
For some short-timers in Congress, though, it’s about to be water under the bridge. They know the power of imminent retirement as a catalyst for fearless valedictory plain-speaking. And they're starting to live by an everyday rule of thumb too irresistible to ignore:
Never underestimate the power of a parting shot.