Finally, two years ago, GOP leaders tasked Conaway (R-Tex.) with temporarily taking the reins of the House Intelligence Committee’s probe of Russian interference efforts to aid Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, because other Republicans had run into trouble.
But on Wednesday, Conaway — respected enough that he was occasionally floated as a potential compromise GOP speaker — announced he would retire next year rather than run for a ninth term.
He became the eighth Republican this year to announce retirement plans, including five in the past few days as the House wrapped up its session and headed out for a 46-day summer recess. Most of those GOP retirements, so far, come from safely red seats — Conaway’s West Texas district went for Trump by a nearly 59-point margin in 2016.
Conaway, 71, said the time was right to walk away, after four years as chairman of the Agriculture Committee and these two years as its ranking Republican. He faced GOP term limits for that coveted post.
Rep. Rob Bishop (Utah), facing a similar term limit as top Republican on the Natural Resources Committee, confirmed his decision to retire a few days ago.
These retirements by influential Republicans suggest that there is increasing doubt about whether they can defy history and become the first caucus to flip the House majority during a presidential election since 1952. If he had stuck around, Conaway had a chance to become the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, while Bishop is near the top of the Armed Services Committee.
The unspoken fear among Republicans is that more retirements could be on the way, particularly over this long recess as members of Congress spend time with their families, travel their district or make official overseas trips.
That time away helps lawmakers recharge and come back to Washington ready for the fall and winter legislative slog — or realize how much they enjoyed their time away from the Capitol, prompting them to prepare their retirement announcements.
Meanwhile, on Sept. 10, the first full day back in session for the House, all eyes will be on a special election in a North Carolina district Republicans should win comfortably. Instead it’s a neck-and-neck race.
Should Democrat Dan McCready prevail there, just after lawmakers have spent so much time away, the retirement floodgates could open. If those leaving include lawmakers from politically vulnerable terrain, that would make the Republican climb to the majority even steeper.
Changes in the House majority are often followed by a large number of retirements. In 2008, after the Democratic sweep of the 2006 midterms, 27 House Republicans retired. In 1996, after the 1994 midterms gave the GOP its first majority in 40 years, 29 Democrats decided to leave the House.
The longer-term issue from all these retirements might just be the quality of lawmakers serving in the Capitol.
Again and again, those heading for the exits tend to come from the ranks of respected veterans who do not fit in this era of Congress, when controversial statements produce social media attention and then cable news hits, leading to large online fundraising hauls.
The Trump era has taken this formula and put it on steroids, vaulting backbenchers with little experience into the sort of prominence that the committee chairs do not command.
Both caucuses have seen this phenomenon, but Republicans impose term limits on top committee spots, and that creates a bigger brain drain.
In 2016, as he hit his six-year limit as chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) decided to retire. A staunch conservative who represented Florida’s right-tilting Panhandle for almost 16 years, Miller worked behind the scenes to pass a sweeping bipartisan overhaul of medical treatment for military veterans.
After a heated primary in 2016, Matt Gaetz, then a 34-year-old state legislator, emerged as Miller’s successor, becoming a nonstop presence on cable news as a Trump ally.
Conaway and Bishop are classic workhorses, not show horses. They focused on issues critical to their regions — farming for West Texas, public lands for Utah — and expanded outward for experience on other issues.
Republicans should be more alarmed by the retirement decisions of Reps. Paul Mitchell (Mich.), who is in just his second term, and Martha Roby (Ala.), once considered a rising star from the class of 2010.
Roby, who just turned 43, was the face of what many hoped would be the GOP’s future: She’s a conservative mother of two who once worked at Sony Music and who can talk about 1980s heavy metal and the Pentagon’s 10-year procurement plans.
In the decennial reapportionment, Alabama is likely to lose a seat, and by 2022 Roby would probably have had to face another GOP incumbent in a member-vs.-member primary — one in which her past criticisms of Trump’s behavior would no doubt get re-litigated.
On July 15, Mitchell became one of the few Republicans to forcefully denounce Trump for his “go back” comments directed at four Democratic congresswoman of color.
Less than 10 days later, barely 2½ years into his congressional service, he announced he would retire at the end of 2020.
Who replaces these Republicans, even as they come from safe GOP districts, will say much about whether the party wants to make any course correction away from the Gaetz model of politics and back toward the Conaway approach to governance.
“I expect a spirited primary process,” Conaway told reporters in Midland.