Despite controlling the House, Senate, and Oval Office, the GOP has the infamous Trump albatross around its neck to contend with in 2018. And, with Trump having unexpectedly backed the Democrats rather than his own party on the issue of the debt ceiling, there’s certainly no guarantee that the President will even try to assist his legislative colleagues during the upcoming midterms. After all, tensions run deep between populist Trump and traditional conservatives like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI).
Amid the festering intra-party tensions between the White House and Congress, a growing number of Republicans on the Hill are deciding to retire in 2018 rather than seek re-election. At least four Republican U.S. Representatives are deciding to bow out of their highly-competitive seats, their choices almost undoubtedly influenced by predictions that Democrats will have the advantage next November. Since elections favor the incumbent, losing the incumbency in a growing number of House districts threatens to remove the GOP majority in that body.
Complicating the Republican landscape is the fact that former White House adviser Steve Bannon, a Trump ally, is poised to help launch GOP primary challenges against moderate Republican Senators who have criticized the President. Bannon, now back at Breitbart, is free to use his controversial media empire as a pro-Trump attack dog. His focus on moderate Republicans, rather than Democrats, has irked Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and John Thune (R-SD), who claim that Bannon’s tactics could jeopardize Republican control of the Senate.
Facing an aggressive Democratic Party and equally aggressive Trump enforcers, are moderate Republicans in competitive districts deciding that a face-saving retirement is preferable to endless political combat?
[Temporary] retirement may be a good tactic even for those who wish to continue in politics. Republicans who remain in Congress throughout Donald Trump’s tenure will have to answer for his crimes, choosing to either back the President and risk scorched-earth attacks by liberals or criticize the President and risk blistering attacks by Trump’s outspoken base. In 2020, when Trump seeks the GOP nomination as part of his re-election bid, all Republicans in Congress will be expected to endorse someone. Most Republicans today are trying to remain mum about their feelings toward the controversial commander-in-chief, but they won’t have that option two and a half years from now.
Eventually, virtually every Republican office-holder will have to endorse someone. It’s a choice that comes with some serious consequences, given the gravity of the situation. But if you’re no longer an office-holder, you can play it cool. When 2022 rolls around, and Trump is no longer in the Oval Office, many 2018 retirees may suddenly return. Having spent four years resting and strategizing, they can start fresh.
During their four-year quasi-retirements, those Republicans who took a knee can enjoy lucrative employment in business, consulting, government bureaucracies, academia, and the ever-popular lecture circuit. As moderate Republicans, those who joined corporate boards during their temporary retirements can always advertise their “real world business experience” upon running again in 2022, branding themselves as far savvier than Trump’s hodgepodge of populists.
But, in an interesting twist, some Trump opponents may be looking to use 2018 to get into the game, possibly seeking the 2020 Republican presidential nomination. Allegedly, 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, a noted Trump critic, is planning to run for the seat held by U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) if the elderly president pro tem of the Senate decides to retire next year. Romney, who was governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, was widely urged by conservatives to jump into the 2016 race to stave off Donald Trump’s victory.
As a result of many moderate Republicans looking to get out, and a few anti-Trump Republicans looking to get in, the GOP landscape in Congress will see a tumultuous shift in 2018. The conservative party will likely lose control of at least one house, but divesting itself of moderates could pay dividends in future elections when those candidates return without the stench of Trump attached. In fact, Republican strategists may pursue this option: Better to lose control of Congress for two years, and probably four, by taking a dive and avoiding intra-party bloodshed.
Encouraging moderates to temporarily retire, and save themselves from Trumpian guilt-by-association, could maintain the viability of the Republican Party over the long run. Those who refuse to retire, and engage in brutal primary challenges against the forces of Steve Bannon and Breitbart, may come out worse for wear if they do persevere. And, with the Republicans unable to pass any meaningful legislation, holding one’s seat may be little more than a Pyrrhic victory. Along with the stench of Trump, who in the GOP wants to be tainted with the association of the most do-nothing GOP-controlled Congress ever?
Better to gracefully “retire,” spend some time networking outside of Washington, and decide that you have been “called to service” in politics again in 2022, after the dust settles and your “moderateness” is once again an asset rather than a Bannon-provoking liability.