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Rep. Mac Thornberry Joins Group Of Texas Republicans Not Seeking Reelection In 2020

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Ready for your word of the day? How about Texodus (ph)? That's apparently what you call it when a sixth House Republican from Texas announces he will not seek re-election next year. Mac Thornberry was first elected in 1994. Abby Livingston is Washington Bureau Chief for the Texas Tribune. Welcome to the program.

ABBY LIVINGSTON: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: All right, so unlike some other Texans who are choosing not to run, Mac Thornberry is actually less of a surprise. Why is that?

LIVINGSTON: It was the biggest open secret in Texas politics that he'd probably hang it up this year. He's a longtime congressman from Northwest Texas, and he is the outgoing ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, which means he used to be chairman until Democrats took control of the chamber.

And Republicans have term limits at that position, and so he was going to have to give up that position at the end of this term, and there was widespread belief that that was going to be what made him want to retire. It's no fun going back to being rank and file after you've been a chairman and a ranking member.

CORNISH: I want to move on to some of the other retirements, but one thing about Thornberry is he was elected in this class of 1994 Republicans that came in a wave with Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America." How has the Texas Republican Party changed since then?

LIVINGSTON: I've been thinking a lot about 1994. I wrote a piece recently about Ann Richards' granddaughter, who's in national politics now, working for Senator Kamala Harris. That was when everything changed. George W. Bush took over. The GOP run by him took over the state. And so Thornberry came in that year, and it's been a huge, sweeping change in Texas history to - probably 2014 was the pinnacle of GOP power, and now we're starting to see things swing back maybe more towards the Democrats.

CORNISH: There have been a lot of retirements, as we noted. Are you ready to call this a Texodus? First of all, you should tell us, who were some of the other names?

LIVINGSTON: So there's Congressman Kenny Marchant of the Dallas Fort Worth suburbs. There's Bill Flores of Central East Texas, Thornberry, Pete Olson of the Houston suburbs, Mike Conaway of West Texas. And I'm missing one, and I should...

CORNISH: Will Hurd, probably, right?

LIVINGSTON: Will - oh, the most important one.

CORNISH: Yeah.

LIVINGSTON: Yeah. Will Hurd was when Texodus became a thing, and so - he's a moderate Republican, and he retired this summer, and it was sort of like a nuclear bomb went off in the GOP conference because he had a tough re-election. He was perceived as the only Republican who could hold that seat by many people, but not all. And he was the only African American Republican in the House.

CORNISH: Why do you think this is happening now?

LIVINGSTON: I think, one, in the case of Mac Thornberry and a couple others, this is generational change. These are guys who've had chairmanships. They've hit their peak of power in Congress, and they know it's not going to be a lot of fun going forward, and they're ready to hand it over. There's another category of members who were shocked this past year to see how close their margins were for re-election. They represent suburban districts, and they may have only won by three, five points, and now Democrats are coming after those seats full throttle.

The third thing is the undercurrent under all of those, which is - I think there is a growing realization, at least in the minds of these members, that Republicans will not get the chamber back. And being in the minority is a not very fun existence for members of Congress, and so I don't think you can make a sweeping generalization, but I think the minority status is the undercurrent.

CORNISH: Should Republicans nationally keep an eye on what's going on in Texas, or is it the other way around - right? - that, like, basically, Texas is - it's becoming a national race?

LIVINGSTON: What I think is happening is, in the past, there's been this Democratic dream of flipping the state. Bring in a charismatic statewide figure, and it's going to make everything change and better. And that has not worked, and so what I've seen happening since 2016 - and this totally correlates with President Trump - Democrats have been making small gains in the state House legislature, in the congressional delegation. And that is party-building. The wealthiest parts of Texas in Houston and Dallas are now represented by Democrats. That's a well of donors to go to. And so I think that there is a long slog toward making Texas competitive. It could be faster than I think or it could be slower, but I think it's in that direction and it's a bottom-up movement.

CORNISH: That's Abby Livingston, Washington Bureau Chief for the Texas Tribune. Thank you so much for your reporting.

LIVINGSTON: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.