Will Hurd Could Be the Canary in the Coal Mine

The Texas Republican’s retirement, which shocked his party, could be a harbinger of a broader exodus from Congress.

Representative Will Hurd of Texas stands at a podium outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Behind him are 10 men and women watching him speak. The Capitol dome is visible in the background.
Erin Scott / Reuters

It’s bad enough for House Republicans that eight of their members have already decided to call it quits after next year; that six have announced their retirement in the past two weeks alone; and that those fleeing Congress include two of the party’s 13 women lawmakers, its chief of candidate recruitment, and the GOP’s sole African American representative in the House, Will Hurd of Texas.

What’s even worse for the party’s diminished ranks, however, is that this modest wave of departures may only be a harbinger of a broader exodus.

In 2018, Republicans lost their House majority in a Democratic wave that was exacerbated by more than two dozen retirements. But the early indicators of 2019 suggest that the GOP minority has not hit rock bottom: The surprising announcements thus far are a signal that Republican lawmakers see little benefit in trying to govern out of power and little hope that their party will regain the majority in 2020. And while Republicans have largely (but not entirely) given their votes to President Donald Trump’s agenda, the members choosing to leave are a further sign of the party’s frustration with the president’s frequent outbursts and—especially in the case of women and lawmakers of color—of a reluctance to run on the same ticket with him next year.

No retirement has stung more than that of Hurd, a former CIA officer who shocked the party last night when he announced that he would not seek reelection in 2020 and would instead “pursue opportunities outside the halls of Congress to solve problems at the nexus between technology and national security.” Hurd made no mention of Trump, or of the president’s recent spate of racist tweets, but he noted that he is the only African American member of the Republican conference and represents a border district that is 71 percent Latino:

I’ve taken a conservative message to places that don’t often hear it. Folks in these communities believe in order to solve problems we should empower people not the government, help families move up the economic ladder through free markets not socialism and achieve and maintain peace by being nice with nice guys and tough with tough guys. These Republican ideals resonate with people who don’t think they identify with the Republican Party. Every American should feel they have a home in our party.

Before Trump’s election, Hurd was seen as a rising star in a party that had been seeking to broaden its appeal beyond white voters. But as Republicans largely rallied around the president’s strategy of stoking racial and ethnic divisions, Hurd became a more and more lonely voice of moderation on issues such as immigration and the border. He was first elected in 2014 and won his reelection bid last year by just 1,000 votes in a district that Hillary Clinton narrowly carried in 2016. Hurd’s retirement immediately makes Democrats favored to pick up his seat next fall, according to congressional forecasters. With Hurd’s departure, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina will be the only elected black Republican in the Capitol.

Party operatives were practically despondent at Hurd’s decision. “This is awful news for the GOP,” tweeted Doug Heye, a onetime senior aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “This is a heavy loss. Sigh,” added Rory Cooper, another former Cantor aide.

Republicans were similarly taken aback by the earlier retirement announcements of Representatives Susan Brooks of Indiana and Martha Roby of Alabama, who’ve both held safely Republican seats for less than a decade. Brooks heads recruitment for the House GOP’s campaign arm, and her decision, announced in June, sent a particularly bleak signal about the party’s prospects in 2020 and its drive to persuade more women to run for Congress. As Politico’s “Playbook” noted, “There are more men named Jim in the House than Republican women running for reelection.”

The big question now is: How many more Republicans will head out the door? After Democrats last recaptured the House majority, in 2006, more than 20 GOP lawmakers retired outright rather than seeking reelection in 2008, helping Democrats expand their majority in the presidential-election year. A similar scenario could occur next year. The eight lawmakers who have announced their retirement—a ninth Republican, Representative Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, abandoned his seat entirely just weeks into the new term that started in January—do not include several older, long-serving Republicans some observers speculate could scrap reelection bids. The lengthy August recess is usually a time when more members reveal their decision, followed by another popular announcement period around the holidays.

Democrats will have their share of retirements, too. A pair of members—Representatives José Serrano of New York and Dave Loebsack of Iowa—have already disclosed their intention not to seek another term. And the party’s campaign arm has had its own turmoil: A group of top staffers at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee resigned on Monday after lawmakers criticized the organization’s lack of diversity in hiring.

But the Democrats’ staffing struggle pales in comparison to the GOP’s dearth of diverse candidates and office holders. And for the second consecutive election, a slew of key departures is likely to leave Republicans at an electoral disadvantage.