Trey Gowdy this week became the 38th Republican to announce their departure since Trump’s inauguration – and Democrats are optimistic
Dozens of Republicans are rushing for the exits on Capitol Hill in an exodus which has dramatically raised Democratic hopes of shifting the balance of power in Washington DC.
Congressman Trey Gowdy, the Republican who made headlines with a crusade to investigate Hillary Clinton, announced his retirement on Wednesday, becoming the 38th Republican to announce they would be giving up their seat in Congress since Donald Trump’s inauguration last year.
Gowdy and other Republicans cheered the president on during his state of the union address, chanting “USA” and standing to applaud his agenda.
But many of the same lawmakers have said they have had enough of Washington and the chaos in the White House, gridlock at work and angry voters back home.
Midterm elections in November give Democrats a strong chance of winning the 24 seats they need to seize back the House and jeopardizing the president’s agenda.
Gowdy was the second senior Republican this week to announce his retirement, after New Jersey’s Rodney Frelinghuysen, a 12-term congressman. The pair chaired powerful committees on oversight and the nation’s finances, and follow 23 other Republicans leaving the House to quit politics altogether.
A further 11 will step down in order to run for higher office in the Senate or as state governors and three more are leaving the Senate. In contrast, only 15 Democratic representatives and one senator are leaving Congress.
In January, Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican facing his own difficult re-election, accused two of his fellows of “running for the hills, making a very frightened assessment rather than a courageous assessment”.
They have cause for fear. Midterm elections are unforgiving even to popular presidents – Democrats lost 63 House seats in 2010, when Barack Obama’s approval rating was around 45% – and Trump is historically unpopular, only recently rising to an average of 40%.
“He’s by the far the most unpopular first-year president in the polling age,” said Matt Glassman, a Georgetown government affairs professor. “No one wants to be embarrassed in an electoral defeat, and a lot of people don’t want to fight tooth-and-nail just to be in the minority in the next Congress.”
The retirements do not bode well, political scientists said. “That’s usually a sign that there could be impending doom,” said Terry Madonna, a professor at Franklin and Marshall College.
Frelinghuysen and several other Republicans face changing districts back home. In 2000, he had such an iron grip on his seat that film-maker Michael Moore tried to run a ficus tree against him – anything to field a competitor. However, in the 2016 presidential election, Trump won the district by just one point.
Democrats’ hopes to retake the House, where they need 24 seats, have risen with each retirement. They are prioritizing 23 Republican-held districts that Clinton won in 2016, but are on the defensive in 12 districts that Trump carried. Although Republicans have only a two-seat hold of the Senate, this year’s races are in states that give Democrats little chance for success. Even to retake the House, polls suggest Democrats need an unusually large “wave” election, like Republicans had in 2010 and 1994.
But the retirements eliminate a typical advantage that incumbents enjoy in re-election races. According to the Brookings Institution, 49 representatives retired before the 1994 wave, when Republicans took 54 seats; 28 retired before Democrats took 30 seats in 2006; and 32 retired before Republicans won 63 seats in 2010.
This November, there could be as many as 40-50 competitive seats. Democrats have already mobilized voters for special elections, mass protests and marches. That means tougher, more expensive races around the country for Republicans.
Madonna said political polarization has reached an new extreme in modern US history, in part thanks to self-sorting voters and gerrymandered districts. “These are men and women who essentially don’t like each other and don’t trust each other,” he said. “They get weary of it especially when nothing gets done.”
Over Trump’s first year, Republican leaders struggled to paper over internal divisions over the budget, immigration and healthcare, and the president has frequently disrupted their efforts.
“He appears to be making the same mistakes this January that he made last January,” said Peter Woolley at Fairleigh Dickinson University, listing staff turnover, erratic statements, and poor coordination with would-be allies in Congress.
“This is a president who does not appear to be growing into the job,” Woolley said.
Madonna said Trump “is in a sense trapped in the middle” between hardliners in Congress, a dwindling group of moderates – many of whom are retiring – and Democrats. Last fall Trump expressed his reluctance to negotiate with Democrats when he endorsed Roy Moore, a Republican candidate accused of child molestation.
On Tuesday night Trump acknowledged that he will need Democratic votes for deals on immigration and infrastructure. “As he tries to reach out more and more, he’s going to find out that he may lose House Republicans,” Madonna said.
The president’s difficult hand could change over the next few months, Woolley said: the stock market’s record strength may yet dissipate, and North Korea remains a major political and security risk.
“There are some serious things that could still happen,” he said. “We’re a long way from knowing for sure.”
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