UPDATE (Dec. 6, 2019, 11:57 a.m.): Two more Republican House members have announced they are retiring. On Thursday Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia announced that he’s retiring, and on Friday, Rep. George Holding of North Carolina announced that he is also retiring. With their exits, that means 18 Republicans have announced they aren’t seeking reelection in 2020.
Graves is another Republican retiring from a safe district, which is one more data point that suggests Republicans might not be terribly confident about their chances in the 2020 House elections. But Holding is something of a special case in that North Carolina just got a new congressional map. His old Republican-leaning district has now become a strongly Democratic-leaning seat, so with no good options for a reelection bid, he called it quits.
When things look bad, people have a tendency to head for the exits. The same is often true of Congress. Back in early August, nine Republican House members had said they would not seek reelection in 2020 and would instead retire. That number has now grown to 16 “pure” GOP retirements (in other words, excluding those who left to seek another office.)
This isn’t that far off from the 23 Republicans who voluntarily hung up their House spurs in the 2018 cycle — even though there are comparatively fewer potential GOP retirees this time around, as the party lost 40 seats in the midterms. It’s not always easy to nail down why someone has decided to leave public office, and there could be a number of factors at play, including dissatisfaction with President Trump, reelection worries or loss of institutional clout. But given that many of these recent retirees have been members of the House for at least two decades and would have been safe bets for reelection, their retirements could be taken as a sign that many Republicans aren’t confident in their party’s ability to win a majority in 2020. By contrast, only six Democrats have said they won’t seek reelection in 2020.1
To retake the House2 in 2020, Republicans need to pick up 19 seats, but swings that large are atypical for an incumbent president’s party. So instead of hanging around to see if their party can reclaim control, these seven members are retiring even though all but Rep. Pete King of New York represent districts that are at least 20 points more Republican than the country as a whole, according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric.3.
|Retired after Aug. 7|
|District||Member||Trump Score||Partisan lean*||2018 vote margin|
|Retired before Aug. 7|
|District||Member||Trump Score||Partisan lean*||2018 vote margin|
So what do we know about these recent retirees other than the majority of them are from safe Republican districts? Well, age could have played a role in many of these departures. Combined, these seven retirees share about 150 years of experience in the House and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, for instance, is the second-longest serving House member, having first been elected in 1978. But only two — King (75) and Sensenbrenner (76) — are actually older than 70. The others are still in their early-to-mid 60s, which isn’t that far off from 58, which is the average age of a congressional member in the 116th Congress. In fact, because Reps. John Shimkus of Illinois, Mac Thornberry of Texas and Greg Walden of Oregon are all still in their early 60s, the relatively young age of these retirees reinforces the idea that Republicans might have misgivings about winning back the House.
Members who plan to retire will also often telegraph their intentions with diminished fundraising totals, but that wasn’t the case for many of these retirees. In Walden’s case, for instance, he raised $650,000 in the third quarter, which was more money than all but six Republican incumbents who are still seeking reelection, so his Oct. 28 retirement announcement came as a surprise to many in Oregon. Similarly, Shimkus decided to retire on Aug. 30 despite raising $450,000 in the first half of the year, although he did briefly reconsider his decision after Walden announced he was retiring as that meant Shimkus could have taken Walden’s seat as the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
But that door may have already been closed to Shikmus. And that’s because he broke with the president over his plan to withdraw troops supporting the Kurds in Syria, asking his name be removed as an official supporter of Trump’s reelection bid. Yet unlike some of the other outgoing Republicans, Shimkus hadn’t demonstrated anti-Trump behavior prior to retirement; in fact, he’s voted with Trump 94 percent of the time in this Congress, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Trump Score.
Meanwhile, although it was Thornberry’s final term as the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, his fundraising numbers didn’t foreshadow an imminent departure either. In fact, he had raised about the same amount — about $405,000 in the first two quarters of 2019 — prior to his retirement announcement as he had during the same period in 2017.
And even though King and Sensenbrenner were older, that didn’t mean they were sure bets to leave office, either. Based on their fundraising reports, both incumbents actually raised more money prior to retiring in 2019 than they had at the same point in 2017. Not to mention, both of them represent Republican-leaning districts where they would have been favored to win.
As for the other two Republican retirements, they’re a bit harder to classify, although in the case of Texas Rep. Bill Flores, there’s an argument to be made that he may, too, have been concerned about Republicans’ chances in the House. A supporter of congressional term limits, Flores had never planned to serve more than six terms; however, he was only in his fifth term, which means he could have served one more term before his self-imposed term limit was up. He, too, had raised more in the first two quarters of 2019 before his announcement than in the first two quarters of 2017.
Florida Rep. Francis Rooney’s retirement doesn’t say as much about a pessimistic GOP outlook for taking back the House, but he does fit in with some of the other Republican retirees from earlier this year who may have faced reelection woes over their anti-Trump comments. Rooney was the first (and only) House Republican to publicly say he was open to impeaching Trump. He then announced he was retiring the next day.
In sum, Republican retirements since early August — particularly those by veteran GOP members — collectively suggest a lack of confidence in winning back the House in 2020. That’s understandable, too, given the last time control of the House changed hands in a presidential cycle was 1952. Big swings are just more likely in midterm years. Moreover, the electoral environment doesn’t look all that promising for Republicans: Democrats have about a six-point lead in early generic ballot polling, a measure that even this far out tends to be fairly predictive.
We can probably expect a few more GOP (and Democratic) retirements considering the large number of states with outstanding filing deadlines. However, it’s unclear just how many more Republican exits might happen, given the turnover the GOP caucus has experienced since Trump was elected in 2016. There just are not as many members who might retire anytime soon. Still, these retirements aren’t a promising tea leaf for the Republicans.