Usually when a political party in Washington has power, its members seek to hold onto it as long as possible. Yet, leading up to the 2018 midterms, when Republicans essentially controlled every branch of government, dozens of GOP congresspeople announced their retirements. Now, even as they still possess considerable power, the same phenomenon is occurring as 2020 approaches.
After the 2016 election, Republicans controlled the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House. Upon appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and Brett Kavanaugh soon after, a conservative majority had been secured in the judiciary as well. On the surface, it appeared the GOP was at the height of its power, and anyone would expect it to do everything it could to maintain those conditions. Yet, before the 2018 midterms, 26 congressional Republicans had announced their retirements—including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
This wave of retirements coincided with a considerable “Blue Wave,” in which 42 Republican congressional districts were flipped by Democrats. And now, a similar pattern has begun since the 2020 election season began. Prominent congressional Republicans in all stages of their careers have been announcing retirements, some to great surprise. Peter King from New York’s 2nd Congressional District has served in Congress since 1992. The Trump ally and former chairman of the Homeland Security committee is not running for reelection. Will Hurd, meanwhile, is the only black Republican in Congress and has been seen by many as a rising star in the GOP. He shocked many earlier this year by announcing he would not seek reelection next November. He had narrowly survived the 2018 Blue Wave to win a third term, but only by 926 votes.
What is behind all of these retirements? This year, Democrats in Virginia took control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time in twenty-six years. A Democrat won the governor’s seat in Kentucky, a state that President Trump won by thirty points. The Democratic Governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, also just won reelection in Louisiana, which Trump won by nearly twenty points. Trump campaigned repeatedly for Republicans in both gubernatorial races. These, among other losses, are certainly concerning the GOP. If there’s one thing politicians hate more than anything, it’s losing elections, let alone reelection. A fear of defeat, especially for Republicans who win by narrow margins like Hurd, might be behind some of these retirements.
In explaining his retirement, though, Representative King might have shed some light on what is happening behind the scenes. He admitted that the toxic environment in Washington is one reason, which is certainly believably. Yet, Democratic retirements are occuring in much more conventional numbers. He also added, with a great degree of ambiguity, that the uncertainty of the impeachment process into President Trump has also compelled him to step down.
The fact that a Republican would step down from office as the impeachment proceedings are gaining momentum may indicate that King is wary of its outcome. Many Republicans are remaining in Congress and displaying a unified front in support of the President. At the same time, many others are stepping away quietly, providing vague explanations for their retirement. It seems they would rather leave office than stay and fight for a cause they don’t believe in or face the ramifications of dissenting from their own party.
Moreover, many of the causes being spearheaded by the President do not align with traditional conservative ideals. President Trump has practiced sporadic and protectionist trade policy, resulting in trade wars and multi-billion dollar bailouts for farmers. Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds and withdraw US troops from Syria was even able to inspire Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to write an Op-Ed to condemn the move. Also, Trump had promised to eliminate the federal budget deficit by the end of his eight years in office, which was music to fiscal conservatives’ ears. The deficit is now on pace to exceed $1 Trillion. While President Trump has certainly been a champion for conservative causes like reducing regulation and strict immigration, he has also frequently directly contradicted what Republicans have stood by for years.
It is entirely likely that each Republican that has retired has had legitimate, personal reasons, whether that be family matters or fatigue over the political process. However, so many trans-generational, high-profile retirements—Senator Jeff Flake, Speaker Paul Ryan, Congresswoman Martha Roby, just to name a few—indicate a deeper, widespread cause. Both the members of Congress choosing to leave rather than face the wrath of their party and the party-system itself are to blame. A political party should be open to a wide range of opinions and ideas within their ranks, including and especially criticizing the President. At the same time, any elected official should use their time in office to do what they believe is right for the people. Running away does not serve the interests of the people or the party; it only serves the interests of those who are supposed to represent us.