Washington Wednesday: Texas in 2020


MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 9th of October, 2019. You’re listening to The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s Washington Wednesday.

THORNBERRY: What Sally and I really feel is incredible gratitude for having had the opportunities the people of this area have given us for the last 25 years.

That’s Congressman Mac Thornberry after announcing he will not seek reelection in 2020. He became the sixth Republican from Texas to publicize retirement plans in recent months. 

Some have dubbed the retirement wave the “Texodus.” And that’s not only because the six members represent a quarter of the Texas delegation—but also because they include some heavyweights.

Thornberry is in his 13th term, making him one of the longer serving members in Congress. And he’s serving his third and final term as the top Republican on the powerful House Armed Services Committee. 

The top Republican on the Agriculture Committee—Texas Congressman Mike Conaway—announced his retirement in July. 

Here to talk about what these changes mean is Jeronimo Cortina. He’s a political science professor at the University of Houston. 

Professor, good morning!

CORTINA: My pleasure. Thank you for having me. 

EICHER: I should have said, too, you’re a podcaster as well.

CORTINA: Yes, well, we have here a podcast at the University of Houston with Houston Public Media called Party Politics. And it’s a weekly podcast in which me and my co-host—also my fellow colleague here at the University of Houston, Brandon Rottinghaus—we discuss Texas politics but also national politics. 

EICHER: Yeah, I remember talking to him about a year ago. Well, I’d like to start with these retirements and the reasons for them. Do you think that we are seeing signs of tough reelection battles, signs that Republicans don’t really expect to take back the House next year—or something else? 

CORTINA: Well, I mean, in some districts, right, like, for example, when you look at some of these retirements, some of them had a very slim margin of victory in 2018. For example, when you look at Pete Olson from the 22nd Congressional District—that is the Sugar Land area, which is a suburb of Houston—he won by 4, almost 5 percentage points. And it’s a district that is changing demographically but also politically. So it’s becoming from a very solid Republican district to a leaning Republican district. 

Obviously Will Hurd from the 23rd district, you know, he won by not even a one percent—it’s like .44 percentage points. And his district is now a toss-up. 

And then you can have other cases like Congressman Marchant in the 24th that is also leaning Republican from solid Republican. 

And then the last stool which is Bill Flores from the 17th that is in the primary here in Texas. That’s a solid Republican district. 

And then as you mentioned, Congressman Thornberry from the 13—northern part of the state. It’s also a solid Republican district. So the two last retirements are kind of a very worn down, very tired. Do they not sympathize with the way that they can do their jobs, so on and so forth. We don’t know that. 

But the other ones are clearly that they’re not competitive anymore for a Republican, most likely will end up having a lot of problems getting re-elected. 

EICHER: The Dallas Morning News reported that of the 25 Texas Republicans when President Trump took office, only 11 will remain after this new round of retirements. In how many of those cases would you say the committee term limits issue has been a factor? And what’s going on with the others? 

CORTINA: Well, I think that we’re going to see, perhaps, after the next year, election, we’re going to see, perhaps, some more retirements, right? It’s going to depend in terms of how competitive these things are doing. You don’t want to retire after a successful career. 

And they say, well, it’s not fun not to be chair of a particular committee anymore. But, you know, people as they see that they’re going to have a future, they dig in, they ride it out. And they know that if they put in their years, one political party or the other is on top, they’re going to be right there where they want to be, right? 

You know, you have to put in your years. You have to increase your seniority and then you’re going to be in that committee that you really like. So what we’re going to see in 2020 is that some of these districts are not competitive or become competitive once again, then some of these people are going to say, “Well, you know what, I’d rather retire right now at the cost rather than losing an election and force to be retired.” 

EICHER: Well, we really zoomed in on Texas and I think that’s right to do. I wonder as we zoom out how do you factor that into the larger battle for control of the House next year? What do you think?

CORTINA: Well, I mean, I think that some of these races are going to be important. Hearing of these six retirements in Texas, you have at least three or maybe four that are going to be up for grabbing for the Democrats. So you have Pete Olson’s seat, you have also Will Hurd’s seat, and Ken Marchant’s seat that are certainly right there for Democrats to grab. And also it’s part of the rhetoric. 

So if Democrats can pick seats here and there in Texas, other places like Colorado or Florida or any other places, that is going to start adding up. And Democrats, you know, basically they have control of the House, so they can increase their advantage. But the real question is going to be eventually if they can take the Senate back. 

EICHER: Let’s talk about the presidential context, because you mentioned President Trump. Obviously there’s no way that Donald Trump is re-elected without Texas. 

CORTINA: Right.

EICHER: But what do you think this congressional upheaval means for him? 

CORTINA: Well, I mean, it’s complicated, right? Without Texas and the 30-something electoral votes, they don’t have a chance. So, what happens here is that as Texas starts to become more and more and more competitive and suddenly changing from red to blue to purple to blue or whatnot, then there are going to be serious problems. 

Because if the Republican Party loses Texas, right, there is basically mathematically, as the status quo remains, not very good chances for them to win another presidential election. 2020, you know, I’m not going to venture to say that it’s going to flip, but, you know, we don’t live in normal political times. So anything can happen. 

EICHER: Texas is typically the source of a lot of fundraising for elections elsewhere. I guess you could say it’s something of a net exporter of campaign cash, especially in presidential races. Do you think we’ll see more of that money staying in the state this election cycle? 

CORTINA: Well, it depends, right? Because it depends on the type of donor that you have. But, for example, when the legislative session ended here in Texas—we have a bi-annual legislative session, so our legislature doesn’t meet every year but every other year. The governor or what we call the Three Amigos, which is the governor, the speaker of the House, and the lieutenant governor, came out and gave a very clear announcement in terms of where they want to see the party going but also the government. 

And part of what struck me was that they want to have a government and politics that are practical. They don’t want to mess around the bushes in terms of stuff that they know are going to polarize the electorate in an unnecessary way. And why? Because 2018 was very competitive. It was a call of action and say, like, hey, attention, attention. The red alarm is sounding that people are not voting for the type of policies that some of us were advocating for. And especially those are very conservative policies that don’t necessarily align with the new reality of the electorate.

EICHER: Jeronimo Cortina is a political science professor at the University of Houston. Professor, it’s great to talk with you and appreciate the information.

CORTINA: Well, it was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.


(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File) In this April 26, 2017, file photo House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. 

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