The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s takeover of GOP forces many House Republicans to head for the exits 

Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.) announced on the House floor on July 24 that he will not run for reelection. (Video: The Washington Post)

Republican Rep. Paul Mitchell’s surprise retirement began with a President Trump tweet. 

Moments after Trump’s July 14 missive telling four U.S. congresswomen of color to “go back” to their countries of origin, the congressman from Michigan phoned a fellow House GOP leader and asked him to get Trump to stop. “It’s the wrong thing for a leader to say,” he told the leader, whom he declined to name. “It’s politically damaging to the party, to the country.”

Three days later, Mitchell was awaiting a prime-time CNN appearance when he saw footage of Trump rallygoers chanting “send her back,” aimed at one of the congresswomen, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Stunned, Mitchell said he scribbled question marks on a notepad to silently ask an aide: “How do I even respond to this on TV?” 

But one of the final straws was the unwillingness of people in Trump’s orbit to listen. Mitchell implored Vice President Pence, his chief of staff, Marc Short, and “any human being that has any influence in the White House” to arrange a one-on-one conversation between him and the president so he could express his concerns.

It never happened. And 10 days after the Trump tweet, Mitchell — a two-term lawmaker who thought he’d be in Congress for years to come — announced his retirement.

“We’re here for a purpose — and it’s not this petty, childish b------t,” Mitchell, 62, said in an interview in early September. Pence’s office declined to comment.

Mitchell is among a growing list of House Republicans — 18 to date — who have announced plans to resign, retire or run for another office, part of a snowballing exodus that many Republicans fear is imperiling their chances of regaining control of the House in the 2020 elections.

And the problem for the GOP is bigger than retirements. Since Trump’s inauguration, a Washington Post analysis shows, nearly 40 percent of the 241 Republicans who were in office in January 2017 are gone or leaving because of election losses, retirements including former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), and some, such as Mitchell, who are simply quitting in disgust.

The vast turnover is a reminder of just how much Trump has remade the GOP — and of the purge of those who dare to oppose him. Former congressman Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) lost his June 2018 primary after challenging Trump; he’s now a Republican presidential candidate. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), the only Republican to accuse Trump of impeachable acts, quit the GOP in July citing the “partisan death spiral.” His political future is uncertain.

Mitchell, who hails from a Republican-leaning district that Trump won easily in 2016, simply decided he had enough. He has a 9-year-old son with a learning disability, and remaining in a highly polarized Washington just wasn’t worth the trade-off, he said.

“Did any member of this conference expect that their job would start out every morning trying to go through the list of what’s happening in tweets of the day?” Mitchell asked, referring to Trump’s Twitter habits. “We’re not moving forward right now. We are simply thrashing around.”

The retirement numbers are particularly staggering. All told, 41 House Republicans have left national politics or announced they won’t seek reelection in the nearly three years since Trump took office. That dwarfs the 25 Democrats who retired in the first four years of former president Barack Obama’s tenure — and Republicans privately predict this is only the beginning.

Most of the departing Republicans publicly cite family as the reason for leaving. But behind the scenes, Republicans say the trend highlights a greater pessimism about the direction of the party under Trump — and their ability to win back the House next year. 

The president has doubled down on an all-base strategy for his reelection campaign, making some Republicans ask whether Trump has put his own political future ahead of the long-term viability of the party of Abraham Lincoln.

“If the party doesn’t start looking like America, there will not be a party in America,” said Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), the only black House Republican, who announced his retirement in August.

Texas Rep. Hurd, lone black Republican in House, won’t seek reelection

House Republicans knew Trump was going to be a problem in the suburbs well before they lost 29 incumbents and their majority in the 2018 elections. In a private meeting at Camp David in early 2018, then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) tried to explain to Trump why the suburbs were key to the GOP keeping the House. 

Publicly, Republicans rarely challenge or criticize Trump, showering him with chants of “four more years” as he spoke to the House GOP at a policy retreat in Baltimore last week.

During a fundraiser before his speech, Trump bragged that he was the reason the GOP won a North Carolina special election held days earlier, according to an individual in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely.

The president had hosted a rally for Dan Bishop the night before the election — but Trump carried the district by 12 points in 2016, and the seat should not have been competitive.

“He has not been a net positive for suburban House Republicans, I mean, that’s a truism,” said former congressman Ryan Costello (Pa.), a moderate Republican who retired in 2018 rather than face a difficult reelection in the Philadelphia suburbs. “Down ballot, for the Republicans, you are basically judged by whatever the president does, and not by what you do.” 

Even in leadership circles, there’s an admission that Trump isn’t helping the party in the suburbs. No one, however, is willing to say it aloud.

“Unless we figure out exactly how we’re going to win back suburban voters, we’re going to be in the minority for a while,” said a GOP leadership aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly. 

The aide said such knowledge has been driving many of the recent retirements: “I think a lot of members are pretty nervous that Trump doesn’t win reelection. And then we’re in the minority and we have a Democrat in the White House. . . . We’re in the wilderness right now, but if you lose the White House, then that is the extreme wilderness.”

Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, pushed back, saying, “the only people who can find fault with President Trump’s influence on the Republican Party are those who have seen their own power and control wither away.”

After the 2012 election, when Republicans failed to beat Obama, the party conducted an internal “autopsy” and determined that the GOP needed to do more to attract minorities. That plan yielded success in the House with the election of two black Republicans — Hurd and Utah’s Mia Love, Hispanics such as Carlos Curbelo of Miami, and five GOP women.

But Curbelo, who lost in the Democratic wave last year along with Love, said Trump “hijacked everything,” effectively erasing all the progress they’ve made with minorities.

“He’s turned [the GOP] into a personal vessel for his brand,” Curbelo said. “The president seems to be doubling down on an all-base strategy; perhaps that can work for him . . . but it certainly makes it very difficult for Republicans to win a majority of seats in the House.”

Hurd, a former CIA official who would have faced a difficult reelection in a Democratic-leaning district, has been increasingly vocal about the direction of the party. He told a Republican LGBTQ group in June that the GOP wasn’t expanding in some places because unnamed people weren’t following “real basic things that we should all learn when we’re in kindergarten”: “Don’t be a racist. Don’t be a misogynist, right? Don’t be a homophobe.”

“The electorate is changing . . . and if you’re not staying up to date, and if you’re not talking to people who are going to be future voters, then you’re going to have a problem at the ballot box,” Hurd said in an interview. “It’s women in the suburbs, minorities and young people — those are going to be the key groups and key voters in 2020.”

The quiet frustration with Trump extends beyond Republicans in swing districts, according to multiple GOP officials. One Republican aide close to Rep. Martha Roby, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly, said the Alabamian decided to retire in part because she was tired of pretending she backed Trump.

Roby was one of the first Republicans to disavow Trump after he bragged about grabbing women by their genitals in a video that emerged days before the 2016 election.

Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005

Roby’s conservative base turned on her, however, and the next election cycle, she had to reverse course and embrace Trump to defeat a primary challenger. 

“It would not matter who is president or speaker of the House. Rep. Roby has chosen to close this chapter,” said Emily Taylor, a spokeswoman for Roby.

A former House Republican close with Rep. Susan Brooks said she also has struggled with Trump’s tone, though the Indiana Republican pushed back on the suggestion that frustration with Trump was the reason for her retirement.

Brooks, 59, who is one of 13 House GOP women and the lawmaker tasked with recruiting GOP candidates, said in a statement that she was “ready to pass the baton” and sought a more flexible schedule.

Interviews with about a half dozen of the retiring GOP members in the past two weeks found a reluctance to speak freely about Trump and his impact.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said Trump’s tweets are “more divisive” than he would like, but the former Natural Resources Committee chairman said he’s leaving because “this is the maximum ability I have to be helpful to the state.” Bishop is term-limited on the panel.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), another retiring member, declined to say whether he had any problems with Trump.

“The president is the de facto head of the party by definition, but the party for me is less government, individual responsibility, lower taxes, more personal freedoms and liberties,” he said.

“People come and go. Personalities are personalities,” he added.

Mitchell has been perhaps the most forthright about his reasons for leaving. 

A pragmatic former businessman, he came to Congress in 2017 to work on health care and trade. Two years later, he blamed both parties for putting partisan sniping above solutions.

Trump’s tweet telling Omar, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ayanna S. Pressley (D-Mass.) to “fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” upset him. Three were born in the United States; Omar, a Somali refu­gee, became a U.S. citizen as a teenager.

Mitchell said he always taught his children that “you don’t stare at people that look different; you don’t assume bad things because people look different than you.” 

“The personal diminishing of someone else is destructive to a country,” he said.

As Mitchell headed home that July weekend, he asked himself: Would the divisiveness get any better? 

His decision was difficult, said an emotional Mitchell.

“Fewer than 12,500 people have ever done this. Congress has the opportunity to do incredible things for this country. I worked hard to be here. I love what it stands for. But I can’t afflict that trade-off, that sacrifice on [my son], when in fact all we’re sacrificing is just time because . . . we’re not solving the nation’s problems here,” he said.