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The Incredible Shrinking GOP

Trump is turning the Republican Party even whiter and more male than before, with profound consequences for party and country alike.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

A contagion has been spreading through the House Republican caucus. It began with Michigan’s Paul Mitchell, who announced on a Wednesday afternoon two weeks ago that he wouldn’t run for reelection. Texas’ Pete Olson followed suit the next day, and Alabama’s Martha Roby that Friday, and Utah’s Rob Bishop last Monday. It was practically newsworthy on Tuesday when no one retired that day. Then, on Wednesday, Texas’ Mike Conaway said he would also step aside.

The real hammer-stroke came on Thursday, though, when Texas’ Will Hurd joined the exodus. The decision shocked Republicans. The only black Republican in the House, Hurd was often described as a rising star within the party. That star also rested in a precarious sky: His district is the only one along the Mexican border that’s not represented by a Democratic congressman. Its suburbs, once reliable red turf, are steadily turning blue.

All of this is a grim sign for the GOP’s prospects next year. But those departures—especially that of Hurd—also signal the Republican Party’s long-term direction under Trump. His version of the GOP does not aspire to be a big-tent coalition, or even pretend that it wants to be one. What’s left is a demand for ideological purity and unflinching support of the president that alienates a majority of the American electorate. The result will be a Republican Party that’s whiter, more male, and more aligned with Trumpism, no matter the damage it does to the country as a whole—or even the party itself.

Driving this shift is Donald Trump himself. His deep unpopularity among just about everyone but working-class white men is an electoral anchor around the party’s neck, one that even a decade of partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression in red states can’t fully offset. And if past is prologue, Trump is far more likely to double down on what makes him unpopular instead of course-correct to win back voters. Hurd didn’t explicitly cite the president last week, but it’s hard to not read his announcement as an implicit critique of the direction Trump is taking the Republican Party.

As the only African American Republican in the House of Representatives and as a Congressman who represents a 71% Latino district, I’ve taken a conservative message to places that don’t often hear it. Folks in these communities believe in order to solve problems we should empower people not the government, help families move up the economic ladder through free markets not socialism and achieve and maintain peace by being nice with nice guys and tough with tough guys. These Republican ideals resonate with people who don’t think they identify with the Republican Party. Every American should feel they have a home in our party.

A certain amount of retirements every election cycle is normal. Serving in Congress simply isn’t as fun if you’re in the minority party. Some lawmakers also simply decide to leave on their own terms rather than face a likely defeat in November. Conservative and moderate Democrats bolted from Congress at similar levels just before the party lost the House in the 2010 midterms. But this time, the current Republican trend mirrors a deeper shift within the Republican Party away from women, people of color, and diverse suburban communities—in other words, a broad swath of the American electorate that cannot be easily written off.

Hurd’s departure leaves a largely monochromatic party even less racially diverse than it already was. He and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott are the only black Republican members of Congress. A Washington Post analysis last week noted that there were only 14 nonwhite Republicans among the party’s 273 members who serve as federal lawmakers or state governors. Among 302 Democrats who serve in those positions, by comparison, one-third are nonwhite. Those figures, the Post noted, largely reflect the racial composition of the Republican Party itself.

Two of the House’s 13 Republican women—Roby and Indiana’s Susan Brooks—have also already said that they would not run again in 2020. Brooks’s decision to retire was particularly ominous: She had been tapped to serve as the House Republicans’ recruitment chair. While neither party is close to gender parity in Congress, their decision will likely amplify a deep gender imbalance among Republican lawmakers. Just over a third of House Democrats are women, compared to 6 percent of House Republicans. Last fall, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Republican members hired an outside woman lawyer to question Christine Blasey Ford, apparently cognizant of the bad optics of eleven Republican men interrogating her. Politico’s Playbook newsletter noted on Friday that the House Republican caucus includes more members named Jim than women running for reelection.

Congressional retirements only tell part of the story. Since Trump took office two years ago, a small but notable number of state and local GOP elected officials have also switched parties. Four Kansas women lawmakers made the jump last December, pointing both to state-level dynamics as well as the president. California Assemblyman Brian Maienschein cited Trump and the party’s overall right-wing drift as factors when he joined the Democrats in January. So did Andy McKean, the longest-serving Republican in the Iowa legislature, when he defected in April. “Some would excuse this behavior as ‘telling it like it is’ and the new normal,” McKean told reporters when he announced his decision. “If this is the new normal, I want no part of it.”

Some departures partially reflect the shift in suburban districts away from Trump’s GOP. Others symbolize what the party is losing along the way. In 2017, Hawaii Republicans ousted their House minority leader, Beth Fukumoto, after she criticized Trump’s sexism and racism at a local Women’s March; Fukumoto left the party shortly thereafter. Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the chief justice of California, told reporters she switched her registration from Republican to no party after watching the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. And former Texas judge Elsa Alcala cited Trump’s attacks on four women lawmakers of color when she left the GOP last month.

“At his core, his ideology is racism,” she wrote. “To me, nothing positive about him could absolve him of his rotten core.”

The GOP’s increasing homogeneity and extremism is not entirely attributable to Trump. The Tea Party movement ousted a host of Republican incumbents in 2010 before sweeping to victory in that year’s midterms. That energy among far-right conservative activists abated somewhat in 2012 before surging again in 2014, allowing upstart challengers to topple even well-established figures like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in primary races. Conservatives replace moderates; far-right figures replace conservatives; the party lurches ever rightward.

This cycle feeds upon itself. Reliable conservatives like senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker opted to retire in 2018 rather than face tough primary races for publicly criticizing Trump. Michigan Representative Justin Amash, a founding member of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, saw himself ousted from the group for asserting that Trump committed impeachable offenses. Amash finally left the GOP on July 4, saying he had “become disenchanted with party politics and frightened by what I see from it.” Trump wrote on Twitter that Amash’s departure was “great news” and that he was “one of the dumbest and most disloyal men in Congress.”

This is not a sustainable dynamic. In the short term, reducing the GOP to a party of white rural men will hinder its ability to win elections at the national level, at least without structural advantages or help from election officials or foreign powers. The long-term implications are even more dire. Trump may be term-limited, but the Republican Party isn’t. By remaking it in his image, Trump is ensuring that his worldview circulates in the American civic bloodstream long after he’s left the White House, if not also this world.