What do retiring members of Congress know that President Trump doesn’t?
There was no home for Representative Will Hurd in Donald Trump’s Republican Party.
For a while he tried to make one. For a while he succeeded, if success means preserving some of your dignity while steering clear of Trump’s wrath and surviving politically. Although Hurd’s Texas congressional district voted narrowly for Hillary Clinton in 2016, he held on to his seat that year and again in 2018, but by slim margins. It was anyone’s guess how he’d fare in 2020, and now no one will know. Hurd, 42, isn’t seeking re-election — he and a big, expanding bunch of his Republican colleagues in the House.
We talk and write all the time about the Never Trumpers: those previously stalwart Republicans who cringed at Trump’s entry into the presidential race; grew increasingly apoplectic as he raged on; began to live, courtesy of him, in an unwavering state of unalloyed outrage; and scaled new media and sometimes financial heights as party turncoats, their antipathy toward the president more titillating and telegenic by dint of their loyalty to Republicans before him.
But they’re not the best gauges of his and the party’s political fortunes. Their estrangement and emotional pitch have been changeless.
The more interesting and maybe predictive group are the Republicans who, to varying degrees, tried to make do with Trump, found ways to rationalize him and still won’t acknowledge how offensive he is but have fled or are fleeing government nonetheless. He made their participation in political life joyless. He so thoroughly befouled their party’s image that they reek by association. And, thanks largely if not entirely to him, many of them faced or face punishment at the polls.
What to call this crowd? Maybe the Toppled Trumpers. Maybe the Shotgun Trumpers.
In the cause of figuring out whether, in November 2020, Trump will be rewarded with a second term, many numbers and dynamics get tossed around: the unemployment figures, the Dow Jones, the trade war, the advantages of incumbency, the peculiarities of the Electoral College and Trump’s approval ratings, consistently low but not entirely static.
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Democratic stumbles are raptly chronicled, and there’s much concern — I share it — that the candidates vying for the party’s presidential nomination are at this point tugging it farther to the left than is prudent for the general election. The decriminalization of unauthorized border crossings? Free health care for undocumented immigrants? An end to private health insurance? This is uncertain terrain, and I for one worry that Democrats could be sabotaging themselves and increasing the chances that Trump again prevails.
But at least one constituency is unconvinced of that: Republicans in Congress, especially in the House. They’re making their predictions with their feet, and they’re heading for the exit.
To recap: Before the 2018 midterms, 46 Republicans but only 20 Democrats decided not to seek re-election to their offices in Congress, and among those, 32 Republicans and 11 Democrats weren’t doing that in order to run for some higher, different post. They were just bolting. The discrepancy between the Republican and Democratic numbers amounted to a weather forecast — and an accurate one at that. Although Democrats didn’t improve their standing in the Senate, they picked up a whopping 40 seats in the House.
Heading into the 2020 election, 19 Republicans in Congress have already announced that they won’t seek another term in their current office, a number higher than at the same point two years ago. Of the 19, 17 aren’t retiring from Congress to pursue some kind of political promotion. Meanwhile, only four Democrats in all are retiring from Congress. To analyze these numbers in the context of what happened in the midterms is to conclude that Republicans are limping toward a disastrous Election Day.
Maybe Trump’s fortunes are untethered from his party’s. Maybe, as has happened so often over the course of his charmed life, he will soar while all around him plummet, and they instead of he will suffer for his sins. His campaign associates go to jail; he goes to the Group of 7. The most principled Republicans are driven from the fold; he reigns without principle over a party that has largely bent to his wishes rather than stand up for what it purported to believe.
“Most often I’m asked why so many Republicans aren’t running for re-election,” Dave Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told me. “But I ask why so many are. This isn’t the cruise they signed up for.” He noted that up until a few months before Trump effectively secured the Republican nomination in 2016, not a single Republican in Congress had endorsed him. The first two House members who took that icy plunge — Chris Collins of New York and Duncan Hunter of California — are now under criminal indictment (though not for anything having to do with Trump).
Both before the midterms and now, Republicans are leaving Congress for all sorts of reasons. But they outnumber Democrats on the way out because, generally speaking, they assume that Republicans will remain in the House minority and they’re exhausted by the tandem experiences of powerlessness and answering for Trump’s chaos and cruelties.
The departures this time around speak volumes about looming threats to the Republican Party. Five of the House Republicans who aren’t running again, including Hurd, are from Texas, a red state whose demographic composition fills Democrats with more and more hope. Two of only 13 Republican women in the House are stepping down. Hurd is the only black Republican in the House — a detail that he underlined in a sort of farewell note that he wrote and posted on his website.
That note, read carefully, is a warning to fellow Republicans and a kind of subtweet of Trump’s spectacularly divisive governing style. “I will stay involved in politics to grow a Republican Party that looks like America,” Hurd wrote, adding that he loves America because “we are neither Republican nor Democrat nor independent. We are better than the sum of our parts.”
Hurd announced his decision not to run again shortly after Trump attacked “the squad” of four congresswomen of color by tweeting that they should “go back” to where they came from. He was one of only four House Republicans who voted to condemn those remarks, which he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour were “racist and xenophobic.”
But he’s in a much larger crowd of House Republicans who, for all their usual silence, privately bristle or gasp at Trump’s behavior. After Trump’s “go back” ugliness, Representative Paul Mitchell of Michigan publicly tweeted to the president that it was “beneath leaders” and that “we must be better than comments like these.” He had previously taken Trump to task for comments after the violence in Charlottesville, Va., that some white supremacists were very fine people.
Mitchell has at this point apparently had enough. He announced in late July that he’d leave the House at the end of this term, which is only his second. He cited the “rhetoric and vitriol” that dominate our politics now. Make no mistake: Those are synonyms for President Trump.