The Republican exodus from the House will embolden GOP radicals

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By Howard Fineman

News analysis

WASHINGTON — In a city obsessed with "Fire and Fury" and Oprah Winfrey, Rep. Ed Royce, the 66-year-old Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made no waves on Monday when he announced that he would not seek another term in his Southern California district after 25 years in office.

But in the real political world — the one that writes the nation's laws and has to work with the administration of President Donald Trump — Royce's decision was a potent sign of three crucial facts:

  • Republicans are increasingly worried that they could lose the House in the 2018 midterm elections and many think they are getting out while the getting is still good;
  • They have reason to worry, especially about the House, and especially since a series of prominent retirements can further hurt the party's chances in the fall and;
  • No matter what happens in November, a more militant rump parliament of younger Freedom Caucus radicals will have much more clout in what's left of the GOP ranks in the House.

No one was shocked by Royce's announcement — a reaction that, in itself, says a lot about the GOP situation.

Like other House GOP members who are retiring, Royce was "term limited" in his committee chairmanship, a policy installed by the modern Republicans' original House radical, Newt Gingrich when he was speaker.

"This shouldn’t be surprising,” said Sean Spicer, who, in his pre-Trump days, was spokesman for, and a key player in, the national party. "Going from being a chairman back to a rank-and-file member isn't the norm."

It also is no fun. "No one wants to give up the prestige of being a chairman in what is otherwise a kind of anonymous place," said Norm Ornstein, the dean of congressional observers.

Royce's departure has added resonance because his district encompasses the GOP holy lands that birthed the careers of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The former was born there, in Yorba Linda; many of the latter's key supporters were based there.

Orange County, famous in political lore, is partly in the district, and Clinton carried the county in 2016, becoming the first Democrat in 80 years to do so.

Demographics and redrawn district lines are driving change. When Royce won the seat in 1992, the district's population was 60 percent white and 25 percent Hispanic. Today, according to The Los Angeles Times, it is 65 percent Asian-American or Hispanic and only 28 percent white.

Now, with Royce's announcement, handicappers think the Democrats have a better shot than they would have had he stayed.

"As these people retire, a lot of their seats become even more competitive," Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., a key member of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's political team, told NBC News.

Democrats see a tide, and think it will last. Republicans privately — and sometimes publicly — agree. November is a lifetime away in politics. But campaigning is an emotional business and "fear of a Democratic wave election" now is affecting decisions, said Charlie Black, the veteran Republican consultant.

And the fear can be self-fulfilling.

Whether the GOP keeps the majority or loses it, the departure of this GOP chairman and others will leave a new brand of Republicans in the House: less traditional, more confrontational, less respectful of Washington and closer to the Tea Party of 2010.

"The House GOP leadership that is now in place is hardly a bunch of moderates," Ornstein said. "But they tend to want to work within the rules and the institutions that exist. That is not going to be a true for those who succeed them after this year."

In the meantime, Democrats are expanding their playing field from coast to coast.

One example is Pennsylvania's 18th District, where a special election is slated for March 13 to fill what has, in recent years, been a reliably Republican seat. The district stretches from the southern Pittsburgh suburbs to the coal-country counties to the southwest.

Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old prosecutor and Marine Corps veteran, is aiming to defeat GOP state Sen. Rick Saccone for the open seat.

"Conor got huge crowds for door-knocking in Washington and Greene counties over the weekend," said Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive in Allegheny County. In January 2018, that is real news.

Howard Fineman is a contributor to NBC and a news analyst for NBC News/MSNBC.