Why Are Texas Republicans in Congress Bolting for the Exits, and What Does It Mean for 2020?

August 12, 2019by Tom Benning
Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on February 13, 2019. (Alex Edelman/CNP/Zuma Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Four rapid-fire retirement announcements by Texas Republicans in Congress have prompted fresh soul-searching for a political party that’s seeing its decadeslong dominance in the Lone Star State start to teeter.

While it’s not that unusual for some lawmakers to hit the exits in any given election cycle, the “Texodus” label proffered these days by opportunistic Democrats may have some warrant.

Decisions of late by Rep. Kenny Marchant of Coppell, Rep. Will Hurd of San Antonio, Rep. Mike Conaway of Midland and Rep. Pete Olson of Sugar Land to not seek reelection next year come in the wake of five Texas Republicans last year also choosing to retire from Congress.

The obvious question: Why?

No one reason explains it all. But looming large is the fact that Texas’ demographics continue to shift, particularly in the suburbs; that the GOP faces long odds to win back the House; and that President Donald Trump’s reelection bid, for good or ill, is going to set the tone in 2020.

“The president’s ability to change the narrative, to dominate the news cycle — if you are a candidate right below him on the ballot, that brings in a whole series of variables that are uncomfortable for incumbents,” said Todd Olsen, an Austin-based GOP political consultant.

Even with all of the congressional turnover — and the prospect that more could be coming — the GOP still sits in the catbird seat in Texas.

Republicans are favored to keep their streak of not losing a statewide race in Texas since 1994 and not losing a presidential battle there since 1976. Some conservatives are also bullish that the changing of the guard in Congress could bring new enthusiasm to help bolster their caucus.

But many in the GOP are taking note of the warning signs, even if they reject Democrats’ taunts that the party is running scared.

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Sen. John Cornyn has been gearing up for his toughest reelection bid ever as a host of Democrats line up for the opportunity to take him on. And no matter the office, all eyes are turning to the once solidly GOP areas of suburbia outside of Dallas and other major metros.

Marchant’s district is a prime example, evolving in recent years from turf where he once ran all but unopposed to one where he scraped by last year with just a 3-point victory.

“The battle for Texas will be in the suburbs,” said Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based GOP consultant who’s worked on several congressional campaigns, noting that those areas in Texas are both growing and changing.

In light of the rumors that the retirement boom may not be finished, The Dallas Morning News reached out to the remaining 19 Republican members of Texas’ congressional delegation to ask if they are running for reelection.

None of them volunteered a forthcoming exit, though a spokeswoman for Rep. Mac Thornberry of Amarillo said only that he’s “not told us anything about retirement at this time.”

Most everyone else answered with a simple “yes.” Some added rhetorical flourishes for emphasis, with Reps. Michael McCaul of Austin and John Carter of Round Rock looking to combat persistent chatter that they, too, might be heading for retirement.

McCaul’s campaign manager, Evan Albertson, said the Republican is “in this race to win it,” noting recent fundraising and block-walking efforts. Carter campaign spokeswoman Emily Dowdell, meanwhile, said he is “absolutely” running for reelection next year.

Whether or not the retirement roster in Texas grows, the shakeup is already substantial.

Combine the four recent announcements with the five Texas GOP retirements from last year and the two Texas Republicans, Pete Sessions and John Culberson, who last year lost their reelection bids, and the group represents more than 200 years of experience in Congress.

Among them are high-risers such as Hurd — once hailed as the “future of the GOP” — and committee leaders, such as Conaway, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee.

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The standing of the departing Texas Republicans likely offers a crucial hint. GOP control of the House ended this year after an eight-year run, and Republicans in the House limit how long a member can hold the top job on a given committee anyway.

In short, it’s no fun being in the minority party.

That’s doubly true for lawmakers who’ve led committees. Those postings, in the majority, confer the rare ability to pass legislation and otherwise get things done. Having become used to that kind of authority, it’s likely hard for many longtime members to get used to the alternative.

“The difference between being a chairman and being a ranking member is like coaching the Dallas Cowboys vs. coaching the Ennis Junior High School football team,” said former Rep. Joe Barton, an Ennis Republican who retired last year.

Implicit in that rationale, however, is the notion that the GOP isn’t going to win back the House next year — or perhaps anytime soon.

Not everyone agrees. A campaign manager for Rep. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands predicted that Republicans would regain the chamber, noting that his boss looks forward to once again being the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

But the GOP lost about 40 House seats last year. Additional traditionally Republican districts, including three of the now-open seats, are poised to be competitive this cycle. The parties are paying outsize attention to Texas, especially in suburban areas that have diversified in recent years.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for instance, has already launched an on-the-ground effort in the state, vowing to subject McCaul and other potentially vulnerable Republicans to a “long and expensive 15 months of public vetting.”

———

Then enter Trump, whose reelection bid is likely to drive record turnout in Texas among partisans on both sides.

Many Republicans see the president as an absolute positive for the GOP in Texas, given his overwhelming popularity among conservatives. Texas Republicans in Congress have also generally backed up Trump, though Hurd stood out as a frequent critic of the president.

Cathie Adams, a former state party chairwoman, said lawmakers should take their cues from Trump, who is “showing them the way” with a strong economy and robust border security.

“Either they can get with that agenda or consider themselves really retired already,” said Adams, first vice president of the national Eagle Forum, adding that the recent retirements presented opportunities to “get even better congressmen in place.”

But Trump remains a lightning rod who employs bombastic rhetoric on immigration and other hot-button issues. That could have a negative effect in true swing seats like Hurd’s vast border district and among key groups, such as college-educated voters, all over the state.

Texas Democrats are almost giddy at the prospect of next year’s election being a referendum on Trump.

“Now you not only have the dynamics of demographic change in those districts, but you have this assault on people’s sensibilities,” said Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic political action committee.

Down-ballot Texas Democrats, of course, will also have to deal with side effects from the top of their ticket, particularly as many leading White House hopefuls swing left.

Still, nothing quite compares to Trump’s unpredictability. And Texas Republicans sticking around for tough reelection battles will likely need to re-double efforts to meet face-to-face with constituents and make their campaigns visible on the ground, experts said.

“The president and his opponent at the top of the ticket will drive 95% of the election,” said Steinhauser, one of the GOP consultants. “There’s really not a lot of room beyond that for candidates to stand out.”

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©2019 The Dallas Morning News

Visit The Dallas Morning News at www.dallasnews.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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