The current 117th Congress is only four months old, but already five Republican senators and six Republican representatives have announced they will not stay in their current jobs.1 Add in a slew of Republican retirements in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, and a narrative has formed that longtime GOP stalwarts are heading to the exits because they are unhappy with the fanatical turn the party took under former President Donald Trump. “We live in an increasingly polarized country where members of both parties are being pushed further to the right and further to the left, and that means too few people who are actively looking to find common ground,” Sen. Rob Portman said in January when announcing his retirement. “This is a tough time to be in public service.”
On the one hand, Portman is right that this is a tough time to be a Republican in Congress. There has been a remarkable amount of turnover among congressional Republicans in the Trump (and post-Trump) era. Of the 293 Republicans who were serving in the Senate or House on Jan. 20, 2017 — the day of Trump’s inauguration — a full 132 (45 percent) are no longer in Congress or have announced their retirement or resignation.
And many of these Republicans — let’s call them the “Ciao Caucus” — likely did leave due to their disapproval of Trump. Fifty-seven of them retired or are retiring from politics completely — including Trump critics like former Sen. Jeff Flake and former Rep. Will Hurd as well as several members of the moderate Tuesday Group. Most obviously, two — former Reps. Justin Amash and Paul Mitchell — even quit the GOP to become independents before they left Congress. And some representatives — among them former Rep. Mark Sanford, who voted with Trump only 71 percent of the time (one of the lowest rates for a Republican) — lost to a more hardline primary challenger. (On the other hand, one Republican who lost reelection in the primary did so to a less conservative challenger: Former Rep. Steve King so openly supported white nationalism that the party turned its back on him, throwing its support behind the more moderate Rep. Randy Feenstra.)
Plenty more Republicans have left for reasons having nothing to do with Trump, though. For instance, 21 retired or announced they plan to retire to run for a different office, which they probably wouldn’t have done unless they still felt at home in the Republican Party. (Indeed, this list includes some of Trump’s staunchest allies, including now-Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Rep. Doug Collins and Rep. Mo Brooks, who is running for Senate with Trump’s endorsement.) Another 29 Republicans wanted to stay but only left because they lost in the 2018 or 2020 general elections.2 What’s more, the “resignations” category — which you might think would include some of the most defiant anti-Trumpers of all — actually skews toward Trump loyalists because eight of them3 resigned in order to join his administration. And even of the 57 members who retired completely, several probably did so for more mundane reasons than disliking the direction Trump was taking the party in, like being term-limited out of powerful committee chairmanships.
Overall, the 132 Republicans no longer in Congress are only slightly more moderate than the 161 Republicans who remain. DW-Nominate uses voting records to quantify the ideology of every member of Congress on a scale from 1 (most conservative) to -1 (most liberal). The Ciao Caucus has an average score of 0.482 while those who stayed have an average score of 0.492. (The more liberal Ciao Caucus score appears to be solely due to the Republicans who lost general elections, who skew moderate. Excluding them, the Ciao Caucus has an average DW-Nominate score of 0.495 — more or less as conservative as those who stayed.)
But the question remains: Did those 132 Republican departures open the door for more conservative replacements? In one obvious sense, they did not: Thirty-nine of them were replaced by Democrats,4 allowing Democrats to take control of both the House (in 2019) and Senate (in 2021) and moving the chambers to the left in the process.
But we’re more interested in the effect these departures had on Republicans internally. And all this Republican turnover has indeed nudged the GOP caucus to the right: first, by culling a few dozen of its members from swing districts and states, who, as we’ve seen, tended to be more moderate; and second, by replacing outgoing Republicans with more conservative models.
We should be careful not to overstate this either, though. There are 81 members of the Ciao Caucus who were replaced by a fellow Republican. Together, they had an average DW-Nominate score of 0.504, while their replacements had an average DW-Nominate score of 0.555 — so, more conservative, but not overwhelmingly.5 And while a majority of the 81 (47, to be precise) were replaced by more conservative Republicans, a good number (33) were actually replaced by more moderate ones.6 The biggest difference, though, is that only five of the replacements were significantly more moderate (a difference of 0.200 points or more) than their predecessors, while 17 were significantly more conservative.
It’s not hard to find examples of seats whose members became more conservative. Former Rep. Scott Tipton, a fairly mainstream Republican (with a DW-Nominate score of 0.451), has been replaced by firebrand Rep. Lauren Boebert (0.798). The late Rep. Walter Jones (a notable maverick, with a DW-Nominate score of 0.244) has been replaced by a reliable Republican vote in Rep. Greg Murphy (0.547). Even Collins, a Trump favorite who was already plenty conservative (0.610), was replaced by someone even further right: Rep. Andrew Clyde (0.879). The biggest shift of all came in New Mexico’s 2nd District, where Rep. Steve Pearce (0.472) was replaced by Rep. Yvette Herrell (0.936), the most conservative politician in Congress. (In case you’re wondering, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene actually didn’t represent a huge rightward shift for her district: She has a 0.807 DW-Nominate score, but her predecessor, former Rep. Tom Graves, was already very conservative, with a 0.716 score of his own. Of course, Greene has certainly brought more rhetorical extremism to Congress.)
There are fewer examples of seats becoming represented by someone noticeably more moderate, but they exist. DeSantis (0.663) was succeeded by Rep. Michael Waltz (0.416); King (0.613) was succeeded by Feenstra (0.413). Ironically, the two biggest swings to the left came as a result of the departure of two of Trump’s loudest critics: Amash and Sanford. (They may have been anti-Trump, but they were still plenty conservative, with DW-Nominate scores of 0.654 and 0.686, respectively.) Their districts — both strongholds of old-school conservatism that have moved left in the era of Trump — are now represented by Reps. Peter Meijer (0.235) and Nancy Mace (0.305), who are already developing maverick reputations of their own. Mace forcefully criticized Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection, and Meijer even voted to impeach Trump over it.
You could also add the transition from former Sen. Orrin Hatch to Sen. Mitt Romney to this list. Although DW-Nominate doesn’t see this as a big ideological shift (from 0.382 to 0.321), Hatch voted with Trump 96 percent of the time, while Romney has become one of the most vocal anti-Trump Republicans in Congress. So even as the GOP is becoming more conservative overall, fresh anti-Trump voices are still getting added to the mix.
The Republican exodus since Trump took office has gotten plenty of attention — but the coverage too often focuses on incomplete takeaways like what Republican retirements mean for Democrats’ chances. But given that the vast majority of states and congressional districts are safe for one party or the other, turnover has far more impact on the ideology and direction of the party itself. That story is a complicated one for the GOP, with some moderates giving way to conservatives and some conservatives giving way to moderates. But overall, it does seem as if the conservative, pro-Trump side is winning out.