Representative Anthony Gonzalez, one of just 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump after the January 6 insurrection, announced Thursday that he will not seek reelection, a surprise decision that raises serious questions about the future of a Republican Party that continues to operate in the shadow of the former president. For those Republicans who still hope that the GOP might shake Trump’s malign influence, Gonzalez’s decision was a considerable blow.
“The fact that he can’t in good conscience be a member of this House Republican conference, I think that’s a big deal,” said Bill Kristol, a conservative commentator and an unofficial leader of the anti-Trump movement. Kristol is the director of Defending Democracy Together, an organization formed by lifelong Republicans aimed at preserving democratic norms.
Gonzalez’s decision was first reported by The New York Times on Thursday evening. In his interview with the Times’ Jonathan Martin, the Ohio Republican called Trump a “cancer for the country,” and raised concerns about a potentially bruising primary against a Trump-backed candidate. Although he expressed confidence that he could defeat Max Miller, a Trump White House aide, he offered that he had some reluctance to return to a Republican conference that’s become increasingly, if not exclusively, defined by its loyalty to the former president.
“Politically the environment is so toxic, especially in our own party right now,” he told the Times. “You can fight your butt off and win this thing, but are you really going to be happy? And the answer is, probably not.”
After the Times report was published, the congressman posted a statement to Twitter, saying that “it is clear that the best path for our family is not to seek reelection at all.”
“While my desire to build a fuller family life is at the heart of my decision, it is also true that the current state of our politics, especially many of the toxic dynamics inside our own party, is a significant factor in my decision,” he said.
Trump, for his part, gleefully reveled in Gonzalez’s decision, implying that the congressman was receiving his just deserts for his “ill-informed and otherwise very stupid impeachment vote against the sitting President of the United States, me.” Trump has endorsed several primary opponents of Republicans who voted to impeach, including Miller; Gonzalez is just the first to decide publicly that the prize of getting reelected isn’t worth the pain.
Although Trump wittily suggested that Gonzalez “can now get himself a job at ratings-dead CNN or MSDNC,” it’s unclear what Gonzalez will do next. Kristol suggested that the congressman could switch parties and instead run as a Democrat—an option that could help prevent Republicans from regaining the House in 2022. It’s not clear that this option would be palatable for Gonzalez, who spoke of the toll on his family.
It’s also uncertain how his decision will resonate for the other nine Republicans who voted to impeach. Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, the most outspoken Trump critics in the caucus, have been unofficially excommunicated by the majority of their House Republican colleagues. Cheney is the vice chair and Kinzinger a member of the new Select Committee on January 6, lending that panel some small amount of bipartisan gravitas, even as they are maligned as traitors by many in their own conference.
“In some ways, these guys have made themselves pariahs. They took this vote knowing that they weren’t going to be greeted as liberators,” said Liam Donovan, a GOP consultant who has been critical of Trump, about the House Republicans who voted to impeach. “Being a Republican, and being a good Republican, is a function of allegiance to Trump. And this was the ultimate betrayal.”
Cheney praised Gonzalez in a tweet on Thursday evening for his “courageous dedication to the Constitution,” and predicted that he would “be a major force in our nation’s politics and government for many years to come.” She tweeted on Friday morning that Trump’s statement shows that the former president is “at war with the Constitution.” Kinzinger echoed that “Trump is a weak man who preys on fear.”
Gonzalez was hardly as strident in his criticism of the former president as Cheney and Kinzinger, and like every other House Republican, he voted against the creation of the select committee on which they now sit. (He did vote in favor of a bill creating a bipartisan, 9/11-style commission that was blocked by Senate Republicans.)
But in Trump’s Republican Party, voting to impeach was a grievous enough sin. And the ground for Republicans who refuse to accommodate or acquiesce to Trump—or accommodate those who do acquiesce to Trump—is shrinking, Kristol said.
“It’s really ultimately not tenable, if you really think Trump’s a threat to the republic, you can’t just sort of say two sentences to disapprove of something Trump said, and then go right ahead and support Kevin McCarthy, Elise Stefanik, and all the rest,” Kristol said, referring to Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, both staunch allies of the former president. (Stefanik replaced Cheney as conference chair after Cheney was ousted due to her continued criticism of Trump.)
Gonzalez’s decision isn’t necessarily a warning sign for the nine other Republicans who voted to impeach; they knew at the time that they would be making politically difficult votes, and did so anyway. Along with potential primary opponents, redistricting will also be a factor in their elections, meaning that observers—and incumbents themselves—won’t really know the shape of their races until congressional district lines are redrawn. Of the nine, two represent districts in Washington, one in California, and one in New York—all states with Democratic-controlled legislatures that could redraw their districts in ways that disadvantage Republicans anyway.
In the days of yore, such as after Mitt Romney’s presidential loss in 2012, Gonzalez would have seemed like the ideal Republican candidate for a party searching for restoration and fresh blood. He is the son and grandson of Cuban immigrants and played football for Ohio State and in the NFL before earning his business degree at Stanford.
But the modern Republican Party has largely taken a different path. Now, in the House of Representatives, a Republican member’s most important quality is their loyalty to Trump. That truism will only harden as Republicans like Gonzalez depart. Some Republicans have left the party altogether, most notably Representatives Justin Amash and Paul Mitchell, who retired at the end of their terms in 2020. Mitchell left the Republican Party in December specifically due to his anger over Trump’s lies about the election and the willingness of many in his party to accommodate or promote them. (Mitchell died of cancer in August.)
Recent Republican turnover in the Congress has continued the party’s rightward drive. An April analysis by FiveThirtyEight found that 59 percent of Republicans who hold seats vacated by fellow Republicans are more conservative than their predecessors. If other more moderate Republicans follow Gonzalez to the exits, this trend will, in all likelihood, only become more entrenched.
But the more pressing concern for anti-Trump Republicans may be the cooling effect on what type of candidate decides to run for Congress. If an otherwise ideal candidate with electoral potential comes to believe that being a member of Congress is a difficult and unrewarding job that takes a toll on your family—and that there is no room in the party for moderation or for dissenting voices—they may decide it’s not worth it to run for office at all.
“Congress isn’t a great job to begin with, let’s be honest here. If you’re a young, smart, earnest, successful person—looking at these instances, is Congress the place to go make your mark? I don’t know that I’d recommend that anybody do it.” Donovan said. “That’s the kind of thing that can really chill recruiting.”