WASHINGTON — Even Texas Republicans are a bit amused with the clever new Democratic battle cry that's emerged amid a recent spate of GOP congressional retirements: “Texodus.”
First came U.S. Rep. Pete Olson of Sugar Land on July 25. Then U.S. Reps. Mike Conaway of Midland, Will Hurd of Helotes and, on Monday, Kenny Marchant of Coppell.
Hurd's unexpected exit set off concern within the Republican political class. But otherwise, according to interviews with state and national Republican operatives, there is a widespread sense that turnover within the delegation is healthy for the party.
“Of course, it’s hard to lose strong incumbents, but there is good reason for optimism — it will create a needed sense of urgency beyond the GOP and the base that will be critical to keeping Texas red and reminding Democrats that their movement toward socialism has no place in the state,” said Catherine Frazier, a veteran of the Rick Perry and Ted Cruz political operations.
“These open seats are a great opportunity to put our best candidates forward, to instill a shot of energy to Republicans statewide and lay waste to the tens of millions national Democrats will spend in a futile effort to win Texas,” she added, echoing many of her colleagues.
In reality, Texas Republicans expected a rash of retirements as soon as the GOP lost control of the U.S. House in November. And the current sum of four retirements still trails the eight Texas members who left office during the 2018 election cycle.
Conaway’s sprawling West Texas district is all but certain to stay in the Republican column. But Democrats came within 5 percentage points or less in capturing the other three seats last year.
While each retiree has his own reasons for stepping aside, Republican operative after Republican operative told The Texas Tribune that the common thread was the misery of serving in a minority while Trump is president and there is little hope of the party taking back the majority next year.
And much has changed since most of these members came to Congress. Save for Hurd, social media was in its infancy when these members first took office. And with Trump’s entrance into the political scene, the level of toxic partisanship on both sides has only escalated.
Day after day, members walk to the U.S. House chamber to cast votes. And day after day, reporters swarm these members to answer for the latest Trump tweet or policy change.
Marchant, Olson and Hurd, who were already in tough reelection races, have also faced exceedingly angry constituents, eager political trackers following them around with video cameras to catch any misstep and opposition researchers digging into their backgrounds looking for anything that could be used against them.
These vacancies present the party with an opportunity, more than a few Republicans argued to the Tribune.
Before the 2018 midterms, nearly all of the House Republicans from Texas were white men ranging in age from their 50s into their 80s. While Republicans are careful not to slight the outgoing members, there is a sense that the House GOP delegation had become stagnant. Most cycles, only one or two members retired.
But Republicans have a deep bench in the state. And as soon as these retirements went public, the names of viable potential candidate immediately floated. Furthermore, Republicans argue, younger candidates will not have the baggage of long Congressional records to contend with in a general election campaign.
The National Republican Campaign Committee, the House GOP campaign arm, portrayed the Texas battle plan as an offensive one.
“The NRCC mission in Texas remains the same: to ensure that every Republican seat remains in Republican hands and to make socialist Democrats Lizzie Fletcher and Collin Allred single-term members of Congress,” said NRCC spokesman Bob Salera.
“Republicans will beat Democrats and win back the majority by showing voters the dangers of the socialist agenda being pushed by their party," he added. "Socialist extremism is far out of step with Texas voters and will be rejected in 2020.”
Clearly, each party is gearing up for hand-to-hand combat in districts across the state. But as hard as they fight, many of the fortunes could turn on presidential turnout.
There’s also a self-interest in the Texas GOP consultant class with all of these open seats: big business.
For most of the past decade, the money to be made from campaign consulting came in the winter sprint to the March primary every other year. Unless there was a runoff, the winner of the primary would win the seat. Consultants' intraparty fight for candidate business became increasingly cutthroat in recent years.
Now, there are so many open primary and potential general election races that consultants predict that younger operatives may have opportunities not afforded in past years. The congressional vacancies could also set off a chain reaction with open seats in the state Legislature.
Democrats scoff at the GOP optimism.
“What’s necessarily good for Republican consultants may not be good for the size of the Republican conference come January 2021,” said Avery Jaffe, a spokesman for the House Democratic campaign arm.
“Jerry Jones should check on his stadium because that is the most shameless incident of moving the goal posts Texas has ever seen," he added.
His state party counterpart concurred.
“That is complete spin,” said Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party. “It’s something where everybody knows it’s easier to run with an incumbent than with an open seat.”
Both men further pointed out that an open seat usually translates into a crowded primary, wherein a nominee usually emerges in the May runoff with little money in his or her campaign account. In contrast, incumbents rarely face serious primary challenges and enter the general election with millions to spend.
While Republicans insist they are bullish about holding these seats, none will even privately try to argue that Hurd's exit is somehow good for the party. Hurd was the model candidate party officials would point to when incumbents had not faced a competitive general election in years.
But mostly, the gut punch was that Hurd — a clearly ambitious politician — no longer saw being a House Republican as a worthwhile path.
Still, rumors run rampant — from Katy to the Panhandle — over who's next. Which is exactly what the Democrats are hoping for.
"While we organize Texans at the grassroots level, Republicans are stuck in a state of denial, spinning out of control as their members keep choosing to slink away rather than face tougher races," said Jaffe. "Texodus is the unraveling, and we're watching it in real time."