Something Strange Is Going On With All Those Retiring Texans

A wave of G.O.P. House members leaving Congress is a political opportunity for hungry Democrats.

by Christopher Hooks

Texas Rep. Will Hurd, one of 13 incumbent House Republicans to recently announce their retirement from Congress.

The Republican Party of Texas appears to be molting. Last week, Representative Bill Flores became the 10th Texas Republican in the House to announce his retirement since the 2016 election, and the fifth this year. Others are expected this year.

If Democrats can flip the congressional districts they lost by less than five points in 2018 — including one represented by Will Hurd, a retiring local maverick who was once considered a Republican rising star — they will make up the majority of the state’s congressional delegation for the first time since 2005.

This has been branded “Texodus,” proof the Republican Party is running scared. A good deal of the churn has a simpler explanation: By 2016 the state’s Republican delegation had gotten long in the tooth, with some of the older members serving since the 1980s. Now they’re in the minority, and that stinks.

But there is something strange going on here, and it’s been going on for a while. Arguably, Texodus really started in 2015, with the most consequential retirement in the state in many years, that of Gov. Rick Perry. The Texas Republican Party had rarely looked stronger than it did that year — and has rarely had a stranger and more off-putting run than the period that came after.

As embarrassing as it is for Texans to admit to outsiders, who know him mostly for his comically inept 2012 presidential run, Mr. Perry outwitted pretty much everyone in the state for about 16 years. He was a masterful politician, selected to be Gov. George W. Bush’s second-in-command in 1998 under the misapprehension he would be pliable.

In a sense he was our Tito, as in Josip Broz, the dictator who ruled Yugoslavia from World War II to his death in 1980. Yugoslavia was a powder keg, a hopelessly complex patchwork held together by Tito. The Republican Party of Texas, too, was a patchwork. When it became truly dominant, it grew to encompass a variety of seemingly contradictory political tendencies: good-ol’-boy rural conservatives, big-city chambers of commerce, fire-breathing evangelical warriors, white-shoe professionals, white-pride populists and a surprising number of nonwhite voters. On top of that, Texas encompasses a bewildering political environment that consists of five of the nation’s 20 largest cities, each its own planet, and vast rural areas that have little in common with one another.

How do you keep that together? Just as Tito did: nationalism and flexible political principles. Republicans waved the Texas flag harder than Democrats did. Mr. Perry’s first decade was taken up, in the true manner of an Eastern Bloc dictator, with expansive infrastructure projects — his own 10-year plan — until that became unpopular and he became a Tea Party guy. He could be pro-immigrant, a border hawk, a warrior for Christ, whatever you needed.

His long tenure froze the Republican hierarchy and the ambitions of its apparatchiks under him. When he left, the lieutenant governor and attorney general had all been in place for over a decade, and many of the state’s Republican members of Congress were hardened vets, too (with the notable exception of Ted Cruz).

Then Mr. Perry stepped down. The succession appeared to go flawlessly — but it was harder than ever to say what exactly the Republican Party of Texas was about. The new governor, Greg Abbott, didn’t appear to want to do anything. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, an eccentric suburban Christian soldier who unnerved many in his own party, immediately went to war with House Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate Jewish Republican from the leafier parts of San Antonio. Attorney General Ken Paxton was quickly indicted on a charge of felony securities fraud.

Before 2014, some Republicans sought to help undocumented Texans. After, the party retreated into an increasingly grotesque nativism. Christian activists went to war with the business lobby. The state spent the better part of a year debating what bathrooms transgender kids should use. Slowly, the “serious” people in the party started heading for the door — or were thrown out the window.

Donald Trump compounded the problem — he’s outside a few of the main traditions of Texas conservatism, and he’s surprisingly unpopular in the state. Many observers credit him with the forced retreat of the Republican Party from Texas suburbs. And the tectonic drift of demographic change slowly reshaped the electorate — a booming population, especially in urban areas; new immigrant communities; younger and nonwhite voters turning away from the party. When the foundation started feeling shaky, the people at the top started wobbling. Hence Texodus.

Statewide Republican leaders have tried to pull all the factions together, but they’ve already run into trouble. Potential concessions from the governor on guns, after recent mass shootings, have some Republicans warning of “G.O.P. civil war.” And Mr. Trump, who needs to win Texas, may end up campaigning hard in the state at a time when other Republicans are desperate to distance themselves from him.

For Democrats, this is what a political opportunity looks like: It appears for the time being that the state House, several congressional seats and the state’s presidential votes are at least in play.

But for Republicans, lasting damage is being done. The most worrying resignation is that of Mr. Hurd, the only African-American Republican in the House, who was repeatedly able to win a majority-Hispanic swing district against the odds. He is someone national observers frequently referred to as the possible “future” of the Republican Party.

Mr. Hurd presumably grew tired of the party and the president weighing him down, figured he’d probably lose this year and made a break for the private sector. When the talent starts heading for the door, you’re about to have some more serious problems.

Christopher Hooks is a journalist who writes about politics for Texas Monthly and The Texas Observer.

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