Elections 2020FederalIssuesStatewide NewsWhy Are So Many Texas GOP Congressmen Retiring? Here’s What Capitol Insiders Have to Say

With five Texas Republicans announcing retirement from Congress, a narrative has formed that it's due to Democrat ascendancy. The real story may be more complicated.
September 16, 2019
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With the recent announcement that Congressman Bill Flores (R-TX-17) will be retiring ahead of next year’s election, a prevailing narrative has taken root in the legacy media that the proverbial sky may be falling for the Texas Republican Party.

Flores is the fifth Texas Republican to announce his retirement from Congress this year. He joins Reps. Michael Conaway (R-TX-11); Will Hurd (R-TX-23); Kenny Marchant (R-TX-24); and Pete Olson (R-TX-22).

This has produced headlines such as “Something Strange Is Going On With All Those Retiring Texans,” “Texas Is Changing—Quickly,” and “‘Take Texas seriously’: GOP anxiety spikes after retirements, Democratic gains.” 

The narrative is that these Republicans see the proverbial writing on the wall for another Democratic wave in 2020 and want to get out of dodge before they’re swept away with it.

But it may not be that simple.

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On the one hand, the 2018 election indeed exposed the Lone Star State to be more competitive than many believed. Beto O’Rourke narrowly lost statewide in the Senate race against incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz. 

Democrats flipped two congressional seats and made significant gains in the State House and State Senate.

On the other hand, 2020 is not a mid-term election and the electorate is often much different in a presidential election year.

Experts are divided on just how much in-play Texas is at the presidential level. Donald Trump won the state by nine points in 2016 and Romney won it by 15.8 percent in 2012. 

Of the five announced retirements, and three others who have at various points been rumored to be mulling retirement (Reps. John Carter, Michael McCaul, and Mac Thornberry), only four won in 2018 by fewer than five points. And of those four, only one (Will Hurd, who won by 1.3 percent) posted a fewer than 17-point victory in 2016, the last presidential cycle.

Two of those who announced their retirement–Conaway and Flores–come from deep Republican districts. In fact, Conaway’s West Texas district is one of the safest Republican seats in the country with a Cook partisan vote index of Republican +32.

Thornberry, who refused to say whether or not he was running for reelection, recently told KXAN’s Phil Prazan, “I think people should not make too much” of GOP retirements.

The Texan spoke to several senior staffers on Capitol Hill–all of whom work for Texas federal lawmakers–to get their candid feedback on what they see as happening within the delegation.

One senior staffer, who has knowledge of both state and federal dynamics within the Texas delegation, said, “Out of those eight, the only one who fits the prevailing narrative of ‘can’t win his seat’ is [Kenny] Marchant.” 

Marchant won by 3.1 percent in 2018.

“There was a path to victory for him, but he may not have wanted to work for it,” he added.

Marchant’s seat is among those targeted by the DCCC ahead of 2020.

Pete Olson, who won a somewhat close race in 2018, has had some health issues. “The idea that even though [Olson] had a stroke and a heart attack, [his retirement] is still due to Trump is total nonsense,” the staffer added.

He continued, saying, for Olson, “there was no choice to be made there other than to retire for his health.”

For Hurd, the staffer added, “Will’s was a political and a career calculation.”

Hurd stated in his retirement announcement, “I have made the decision to not seek reelection for the 23rd Congressional District of Texas in order to pursue opportunities outside the halls of Congress to solve problems at the nexus between technology and national security.”

“If anyone can hold onto district 23 in a ‘Trump’ year, it’s Will Hurd,” the staffer suggested.

A second senior staffer, who has worked in different capacities for multiple Texas lawmakers, said the Hurd retirement likely does fit the narrative of ascendant Texas Democrats.

“I think he’s [Hurd] a little burnt out from having a massive district and competitive races every year,” the second staffer said.

He added, “I think [Hurd] may have a little to do with electoral realities,” speaking to the unlikelihood of the 23rd congressional district becoming more Republican-friendly after redistricting.

Another under-discussed aspect of the retirements is committee chairmanships.

Of the group of eight mentioned above, two are term-limited in their committee chairmanships: Conaway on the Agriculture Committee (who passed his coveted farm bill last year) and Thornberry on the Armed Services Committee.

Republicans term-limit their members as ranking members or chairs on committees after six years.

“Most members that term out [from committee assignments] retire from office,” the first staffer added, pointing to Conaway and Thornberry in particular as another retirement possibility.

As for Flores, the congressman stated in his announcement that he made a commitment when he first ran for Congress to only serve six terms or fewer. Flores was first elected in 2010 so the next term would have been his sixth.

About Flores, the second staffer added, “[2018] was a tough cycle and he still won by 15 points, so I don’t think Flores’ retirement has anything to do with that [Democrat gains].”

Another senior Capitol Hill source, who has worked for congressional conservatives for nearly a decade, said he believes the retirements have very little to do with the prevailing narrative.

“It’s just the natural flow of things,” he said. “These former party leaders don’t want to return to being a rank-and-file member–especially in the minority.”

In fact, he believes the retirements may turn out to be a net-positive for Republicans during campaign season.

“In today’s Texas, these new candidates have a more compelling story than the Bush-era of 20 years ago,” the third staffer added. “Most of [the retirees] have been here for a long time and the opportunity to move up to a higher position is just not there anymore for these guys,” he concluded.

The second staffer, who has worked for multiple Texas members, also pointed to how long most of these retirees have been in office as an obvious reason for their decision to hang it up.

“Many of these guys have been in Congress since the 90s or mid-2000s. Just look at the math. Aside from Will Hurd, these guys are not spring chickens. [The congressmen] want to go home and spend time with their grandkids,” he said. 

“It may slightly help the decision-making process that it may be more difficult [to win reelection] than it used to be. I think this is just a natural progression,” the second staffer concluded. 

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.