The Republican Party Is Losing Its Future

Representative Will Hurd’s retirement leaves the party with just one black member of Congress.

Andrew Harnik / AP

You can pick your own favorite data point. “There are 277 Republican governors, senators and congresspeople. Without Hurd, exactly one (1) is black,” Dan Lavoie calculates. Or as Politico notes, “There are more men named Jim in the House than Republican women running for reelection.”

But the point is clear. With Representative Will Hurd’s announcement last night that he won’t run for reelection, it seems as if there’s no room for anyone but white men in the Republican Party.

The GOP’s stats were miserable even before the past few weeks, which have seen retirement announcements from several Republicans, including Representative Martha Roby of Alabama, one of 13 women in the House GOP caucus. Representative Susan Brooks, another one of them and the head of recruitment for the caucus, has also opted not to run.

The Hurd departure hurts more than most. Hurd just won an extremely tough reelection race in his Texas district; his retirement means that Democrats might be able to build on their slow return in the Lone Star State. But Hurd is more than a number. A charismatic young politician, an African American, and a former CIA officer, he has won respect from Democrats and was an emerging leader on national-security issues. In 2017, he even went on a widely publicized road trip from Texas to Washington, D.C., with then-Representative Beto O’Rourke.

Hurd was labeled a rising star—the future of the Republican Party, even. “I’ve been involved in Republican politics for over 30 years, and Democrats should be worried about Will Hurd,” Texas GOP Chair Tom Mechler told Tim Alberta. “The sky is the limit. This guy is incredible.” And now Hurd is retiring. Though he said he plans to run for office again, he’s not running for anything at the moment. The future is already slipping away.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Hurd’s announcement came after weeks of Donald Trump lambasting minority members of the House of Representatives. There’s practically no room for criticism of President Trump in the Republican Party, but it’s also untenable for African American Republicans such as Hurd to stand by silently while Trump makes these remarks.

Hurd has previously proved willing to break with Trump, criticizing his border-wall plan and repeatedly warning about Russian election interference. Unlike Representative Justin Amash, though, Hurd has been unwilling to make that the prime thing he is known for. But in an interview with The Washington Post yesterday, Hurd criticized Trump for his recent comments.

“When you imply that because someone doesn’t look like you, in telling them to go back to Africa or wherever, you’re implying that they’re not an American and you’re implying that they have less worth than you,” he said.

Unlike Amash, who recently announced that he was leaving the GOP, Hurd says he’ll still vote for Trump if he’s the Republican nominee. But like Amash, his decision not to run again means he will be leaving the House Republican caucus.

Of course, a heavily white male group of elected Republicans isn’t new. Until the election of Tim Scott to the House in 2010, the GOP hadn’t had a single black senator or congressman since J. C. Watts retired in 2003. (Scott is now a senator.) Since the 1964 election, the party has often relied on racism, sometimes veiled and sometimes less so, to turn out supporters. Unsurprisingly, that hasn’t helped it win minority votes.

But not long ago, the Republican Party appeared to have an epiphany—of self-interest if not quite moral enlightenment. The election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, showed the power of minority votes—and raised the specter that demographic change, as the nation became less white, would create a Democratic electoral edge for the foreseeable future. The GOP redoubled its efforts to ensure that the party was running more women and more minorities for office. That reflected the idea that “it’s hard to be what you can’t see.” These efforts sometimes carried a whiff of tokenism, but if Republicans wanted to attract a more diverse array of voters, they had to show those voters that people like them were in the party.

“America is changing demographically, and unless Republicans are able to grow our appeal the way GOP governors have done, the changes tilt the playing field even more in the Democratic direction,” a post-2012 “autopsy” prepared by the Republican National Committee declared. “If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity.”

Hurd is not the only Republican to discover that being tapped as “the future of the Republican Party” is even more dangerous to one’s career than being tapped to respond to the State of the Union. Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur rounded up a few of the recent victims:

Looking over the list, something jumps out besides stunted ambitions. Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, and Eric Cantor are white men, but the rest are more diverse: Hispanics, women, an Indian American, an African American. One might add Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin to this list, too.

The list suggests that Republicans were seeking their own Obama—a charismatic member of a minority group who could transform the party demographically. But Obama had a much easier lift: The Democratic Party was already dominant among African Americans, and his trick was mobilizing tranches of voters already favorably disposed to the party but unlikely to vote. Any Republican who tried to win on the strength of minority voters would have had to remake the party entirely.

Instead, the Republican Party is now the party of Trump. The center of his platform was a racially infused rage about immigration, which threatened to alienate the Hispanic voters the autopsy declared the GOP needed. His long record of racist actions and remarks, and his habit of speaking about minorities as an undifferentiated “other,” did the same for other groups. His crass remarks about women, allegations of sexual misconduct, and a tape in which he boasts about sexually assaulting a woman hurt the party with female voters. Now he has signaled that he’ll place racial division at the heart of his reelection campaign.

The problem here is the Republican Party, not conservatism. As Eugene Scott points out, there’s a more ideological diversity among African American voters than is often acknowledged. But Trump’s behavior and actions are reversing any progress that the party might have made with minorities, and then some. Trump and his allies keep insisting that he is not a sexist or a racist, but one of the more potent rejoinders comes from female and minority members of his own party, who have made clear by their actions that they don’t feel there’s a place for them in the party he leads.

Meanwhile, the demographic pressures that informed the autopsy haven’t gone away. Trump showed there was still a way to put together a winning electoral coalition with white voters, but that grows harder each year. “When you look at trends, the two largest growing groups of voters are Latinos and young people. And we know what the broader trends are happening there,” Hurd has said of Texas—and the same is true nationwide.

“I think I have an opportunity to help make sure the Republican Party looks like America,” Hurd told the Post about his postretirement plans. The fact that he thinks he’ll be in a better position to do that as a nonelected official speaks bluntly about the state of the party—and the odds that he’ll succeed.