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Republican departures will make it hard for the GOP to win the House for so many reasons

The party will have a tough time holding vacant suburban seats in 2020 — and convincing new candidates to take the plunge.
Evening rush hour in front of the U.S. Capitol
The GOP will have an uphill climb to retake the House in 2020.Joe Sohm/Visions of America / Universal Images Group via Getty

Rep. Kenny Marchant on Monday became the fourth House GOP member from Texas to announce his retirement, boosting the number of departing representatives to 11 overall, including nine Republicans. While it’s not yet a wave — since 1976, 23 House members have retired, on average, each cycle — his exit highlights the significant challenge the Republican Party faces in retaining representatives from suburban districts and, as a consequence, reclaiming the House.

The holes departing members leave will be particularly hard to fill in 2020’s unique political environment, including the suburban political dynamics that this weekend’s violence in Marchant’s home state laid bare. That, along with the upcoming redistricting process, could push would-be candidates to keep their hats out of the ring until 2022.

The holes departing members leave will be particularly hard to fill in 2020’s unique political environment.

In order to win back the House, Republicans need to gain 19 or 20 seats (depending on the outcome of the North Carolina special election redo in the 9th District on Sept. 10). The Republicans’ most likely path depends on picking off the 31 Democrats who currently represent districts that Trump carried in 2016. But some of those are suburban districts trending in Democrats’ direction, which complicates the math.

The two mass shootings this weekend only underscore the difficulty. Cultural battles, which could distract college-educated voters from messaging on a booming economy, won't help Republicans hoping to hold on in the suburbs. The tragic events will inevitably revive a gun control debate that deepens the cultural divide, and it's hard to see how that tension dissipates with the current political climate and the president.

The shootings also happened in the wake of President Donald Trump's tweets disparaging Baltimore and calling on four congresswomen of color to "go back" home before the El Paso attack, which was explicitly aimed at immigrants. We already have a case study for how Trump's rhetoric shapes elections: His warnings about a "migrant caravan" ahead of the 2018 midterms likely solidified Republicans' Senate majority in rural states like North Dakota and Indiana, while also ceding some suburban congressional districts to Democrats across the country.

The tough political climate doesn’t make serving in the minority party in the House, which is already not fun (nearly three-quarters of House Republicans are experiencing what it feels like to be in the minority for the first time), any more enjoyable, especially for candidates who would have to undergo a tough re-election campaign at the same time.

And it could also scare off potential replacements. Normally, the slew of candidates who retire creates opportunities for new competitors who might be even stronger than the incumbents they replace, injecting fresh blood into the party. But combined with serving in the minority, that task seems even less worthwhile for would-be Republican candidates when 2022 is a bright and shiny option just around the corner.

Given upcoming reapportionment and redistricting, some incumbents will get drawn out of their districts when their 2022 re-election races roll around. In states where the population has dropped during the last decade, districts will be condensed so there simply won’t be seats for every 2020 incumbent. For states where the population has grown, key voting blocs will inevitably get split up, changing the shape and partisan composition of individual districts.

In short, even if those newcomers win in 2020, they could lose their spot in 2022. The dynamic affects Democrats and Republicans in Congress relatively equally, but it creates a recruitment problem for 2020 that could disproportionately hurt suburban Republicans.

This is because turnout is always higher when there’s a presidential race. And in some districts, higher overall turnout means that millennials and nonwhites, who turn out to vote at lower rates than older whites, are more likely to vote. They tend to live in cities and suburbs — and tend to dislike Trump. In 2018, for example, Democrats flipped 35 suburban and urban districts (according to my calculations using CityLab’s geographic classifications). So Republicans interested in running for Congress could bet on a more favorable — and stable — political environment in 2022 with a greater chance of getting to serve in the majority, with the added bonus of then being safer in future re-election bids.

In the event Trump loses the presidency, 2022 would also mark the first midterm election for a new Democratic president. Historically, the president’s party tends to lose seats in the midterms, meaning Republican challengers would run with the wind at their backs and a stronger chance of getting to serve in the majority. And even if Trump does win re-election, it’s possible that midterm turnout depresses votes among core demographic groups that tend to support Democrats.

In some districts, the 2020 environment could actually work in Republicans’ favor. Republicans are excited about their recruit in Iowa’s 1st District, for example, a district that Trump narrowly flipped. But Marchant’s district is a suburban enclave north of Dallas with a significant share of black, Hispanic and well-educated white voters, all of whom trend toward Democrats.

If Republicans are better positioned to compete in white working-class districts in 2020, that could further cement Democratic success in the suburbs.

If Republicans are better positioned to compete in white working-class districts in 2020, that could further cement Democratic success in the suburbs. As Nathaniel Rakich of FiveThirtyEight pointed out, that success also affects the party’s policy positions, allowing the Democratic Party to be more outspoken about gun control, for example. Republicans could even end up abandoning their efforts toward the suburbs by the end of the cycle.

Most of the GOP retirements that have occurred so far should have few major political ramifications other than the inevitable primary fights between pro-Trump and traditional Republicans. But Republicans need top recruits for the suburban seats being vacated by Susan Brooks in Indiana and Pete Olson in Texas, as well as Will Hurd’s predominantly nonwhite, rural Texas district. Otherwise, the GOP will have a narrow path to hew to in pursuit of winning the House majority.