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Wave of retirements may not be over for Texas congressional delegation

A blast of retirements and a grim political climate for the GOP could dramatically reshape the future of the Texas Republican delegation.

Members of the Texas congressional delegation listen as House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, talks about Harvey recovery efforts at a press conference in Friendswood on Sept. 21, 2017.

WASHINGTON – For those closely watching the Texas delegation in Congress, Tuesday night provided lots to chew on.

Capitol Hill hardly had the time to process the evening's surprise news that U.S. Rep. Ted Poe was retiring — the third Texas Republican to make such an announcement in a week — before an Election Night Democratic wave swept through Virginia, the New York suburbs, Washington State and Georgia as GOP candidates failed up and down the ballot. 

A once unheard-of prospect — that Democrats could take control of the U.S. House — became more plausible.

"Tuesday gave Democrats their highest-profile victories since Trump became president, and they've demonstrated their ability to boost turnout in Democratic areas by rallying against President Trump," said Nathan Gonzales, the editor of nonpartisan campaign analysis publication Inside Elections. Whether Democrats could translate that success to more Republican-leaning areas like Texas will be the challenge next year, he said.

Poe's announcement followed the retirement decisions of Republican U.S. Reps. Jeb Hensarling of Dallas, Sam Johnson of Richardson and Lamar Smith of San Antonio. U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke previously vacated his seat to run for the U.S. Senate.

Each retirement had its own logic that, at least outwardly, wasn't due to a darkening political climate for the GOP.  

Hensarling and Smith were termed out from their committee chairmanships. Poe spent much of last year battling leukemia and wanted to spend more time with this family. And Johnson is one of the oldest members of Congress. 

Collectively, though, the vacancies are the most in a decade of Texas politics. Delegation turnover could surpass the turnover from the 2004 mid-decade map redraw that felled a slew of Texas Democratic members of Congress. 

Rumors ran rampant on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning about more possible Texas retirements. Nearly every member over the age of 50 surfaced in highly speculative retirement chatter among the Texas GOP political class. Meanwhile, the Texas GOP consultant class privately buzzed about a future in the minority and whether that scenario could goad more Texans to quit. 

So, are more retirements to come? 

The answer will likely come soon. The filing deadline for next year's primaries in Texas starts this Saturday and lasts one month. It's considered poor form within the delegation to announce plans to retire after filing starts.

Texas, in fact, has the first filing deadline for candidates in the country, likely a key reason why three Texans announced their retirements just in the last week.

Other states' Republicans are expected to follow suit as their own deadlines approach. 

But even more retirement news from the Texas delegation could be coming. The deliberations for any member are complex.

In places like New Jersey and Florida, some Republicans are quitting Congress often out of disgust for Trump or because, for the first time in their careers, they have a competitive race on their hands.

But that's not necessarily the calculation among the Republicans from Texas. 

The state's congressional lines were so tightly drawn that it would be extraordinary if even three of the 36 House districts became competitive. So for Texas Republican members, the decision is more centered on winning their primary next year and contemplating what life could look like if the Democrats take back control.

Chris Perkins, a Texas-based GOP pollster, maintained confidence in his party's chances but acknowledged the reality of Tuesday's returns. 

"Statewide results aside, the most concerning results were losses by GOP candidates in suburban areas," he said.

"Democrats ran strong campaigns in Washington [State], New York and Virginia," he added. "If Republicans run strong campaigns, especially in the suburban areas, I like our chances, but last night is proof that Democrats will run hard." 

If the Republican worst-case scenario comes to pass, though, the consequences will be dramatic.

The five remaining House chairmanships would flip. Prized committee assignments could evaporate. And most importantly, the power center of the U.S. House would shift away from the largest Republican delegation, Texas, to an abomination for any red-blooded Republican: the California Democratic delegation. 

U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, studied the patterns of turnout in Virginia and said he thinks the national congressional lines will hold against a wave. 

"I'm not pessimistic about it," he said. 

But, when pressed on the notion of the unfathomable happening, he all but shuddered. 

"Oh gosh, we would have a lot of ranking members," he said. "Not as many chairmen."

Summed up: Congress will be a lot less fun for any Texas Republican who returns to Congress next year. 

Within the delegation, the retirements mark a changing of the guard. The phasing out of chairmanships was always an expected scenario, but there's a likely change in tone.

With such a small incumbent loss rate, the Texas delegation has been largely immune from ambitious Tea Party-backed members of the state legislature. Open-seat races present opportunities for Tea Party would-be members and could factionalize the historically close-knit political bloc.

And there will be personality gaps. Smith was a subtle leader who could rally his colleagues behind a cause, and Poe was a spiritual favorite within the delegation and beyond.

U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, is one of the more junior members of the delegation. He acknowledged the bittersweetness of colleagues moving on but suggested it was natural for "young punks" to eventually grow into leadership roles in any organization. 

Are he and the other young punks ready to step up? 

"I've got great confidence in all the folks in the delegation, for the most part, to step into whatever leadership roles are available," he said. 

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