Republican Retirements: Blue Wave, Red Tide, or status quo?

Nineteen Republican Members of the House of Representatives have announced their retirements from Congress this year. While this sounds consequential and has raised alarm bells in the media, these retirements likely do not signal serious changes to come in the party make up in the House. Not every retirement is the same, but we do see a trend of Republicans announcing retirements from largely red districts that President Trump won in 2016, and this is cycle actually has fewer GOP retirements than in the past. While it is doubtful that a plurality of these districts will turn blue, it is likely that some of the replacements for these Members of Congress will be more in line with Trump based off candidates we see emerging and the President’s 2016 performance. Using hard data along with race ratings and Partisan Voting Index (PVI) from the reliable Cook Report, we can see the whole picture more clearly.

In 2018, one of the dominant themes of the midterm election was the number of Republicans retiring.  Twenty-three Republican Members of the House chose not to run for re-election, leaving 5 districts open that were rated by the Cook Political Report as “lean Democratic,” ultimately playing a large role in flipping the House blue to red. With the number of retirements approaching the same amount as last year, should we expect the same result and a larger majority for House Democrats?

Not so fast.  Of the retiring members, the Texas’ 23rd district is the only district with a Democratic inclination that is held by a retiring Republican. With a Cook PVI of R +1, the district leans Republican, but barely so. Of the 19 retiring Republicans, 12 are leaving R +10 districts, and 5 of the remaining 7 are R+8 or higher. By this measurement, seats held by retiring Republicans are generally safer than the last election.

Of these districts, three are some of the most partisan Republican districts in the country, and a retiring representative is unlikely to change that. Texas’ 13th district, which will be vacated by Armed Services Ranking Member Mac Thornberry, is the single most conservative district in the nation, with a Cook PVI rating of R +33 – a district that President Trump won with nearly 80% of the vote. There’s close to no chance a Democrat could get elected to this seat. Texas’ 11th district is rated R +32 – also a near impossibility of flipping. Rep. John Shimkus is leaving Illinois’ 15th district – the most Republican district in the state. The Cook Report predicts that of those 19 districts, only one could “flip” to the Democratic party, and only three of these races are considered a “toss up” – which still favors the Republican party. All of this is to say that the Republican retirements do not signal a major advantage for the Democrats.

What is perhaps a more important to note is President Trumps performance in these districts. Many of the retiring Republicans like Rep. Mike Conaway (TX-11), Rep. Mac Thornberry (TX-13, and Rep. John Shimkus (IL-15) are leaving districts that Trump carried by 70% or more. It is likely that these seats previously held by “old guard” Republicans will be replaced by Republicans in line with the style of Trump. Trump received at least 50% of the vote in 17 out of the 19 districts in question and beat Clinton in all but the competitive TX-23. If the president’s performance is indicative of the voting population in these districts, the Republican replacements for these retiring Members of Congress are likely to be more partisan and less open to working across the aisle with the Democratic members.

Though only Alabama and Indiana have finalized their primary field, it’s likely too early to predict frontrunners in AL-2 and IN-15, both of which are represented by retiring members. In Alabama’s 2nd district, Republican Troy King has backed Trump on immigration and has been endorsed by Trump ally Roger Stone. Another primary challenger in AL-02, Barry Moore, has touted his early endorsement of Trump and is expected to make his support of the president a centerpiece of his race. Other primary candidates on the Republican side have indicated support for Trump as well.

Kent Gray, a former Trump campaign staffer, is running for the nomination in Illinois’ 15th district. Gray is a vocal Trump supporter, saying, “President Trump needs reliable supporters in Congress to help him accomplish his agenda.” Other candidates for the seat have also made points to voice support for the president. As previously mentioned, Illinois’ 15th district is the most conservative district in the state, but it has been represented by Rep. John Shimkus, who recently renounced his support for Trump. This is a clear indication of the changing attitude towards Trump between Republican retirees and their potential replacements.

Looking ahead to the 2020 elections, it is unlikely that a significant number of seats held by retiring Republicans will go blue, and at the very least, Republicans are in a better spot heading into 2020 than they were in the last election cycle. While it is too early to predict primary races, pay attention to emerging candidates in these districts and their alignment with Trump. Stay tuned to primary dates in the coming months to see how these races play out and what patterns may emerge among potential new Republican members of the House.