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Quitting Time

Traditional Republicans are ditching Congress—with one curious exception.

Rep. Mike Gallagher walks through the House side of the U.S. Capitol towards the House Chamber in Washington, D.C., on February 6, 2024. (Kent Nishimura for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

To follow politics in 2024 is to find oneself forever confronted with startling new facts about America’s gerontocracy. A fun one I stumbled across recently: Joe Biden’s birthdate is closer in time to Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration than it is to Biden’s own inauguration.

Over the weekend, we added another to the canon. Sen. Chuck Grassley will probably outlast Rep. Mike Gallagher in Congress.

I say “probably” because we shouldn’t assume too much about the vitality of a man who’ll turn 91 in September. But if Grassley remains in good health for another 11 months, he’ll be there when the next term gavels in on January 3, 2025. Gallagher will not.

“Congress is no place to grow old,” the congressman from Wisconsin declared in a statement on Saturday announcing his retirement at the end of this year. Practically everyone else in the House and Senate, Chuck Grassley especially, politely disagrees. What makes the sentiment even stranger coming from Gallagher, though, is that he arguably hasn’t even reached middle age yet, let alone the precipice of being “old.” He won’t turn 40 for a few more weeks.

On the day he was born in 1984, Chuck Grassley was already halfway through his first term in the Senate.

Gallagher isn’t the only House Republican to have called it quits during what should be the prime of their legislative careers. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who’s 54, announced her own retirement on Thursday. Forty-eight-year-old Rep. Patrick McHenry did the same in December. It’s not unusual for young members to quit the chamber in order to run for Senate in their home state, but neither Gallagher, Rodgers, nor McHenry is running for anything this year. In fact, Gallagher declined the GOP’s invitation to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

Sometimes young backbenchers grow frustrated with their lack of influence in the House and opt to retire for that reason, but that’s not true in this case either. Each of the three I’ve mentioned wields unusual power in the current majority. Gallagher chairs the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. Rodgers chairs the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce. And McHenry not only chairs the House Financial Services Committee, he briefly filled in as speaker after Kevin McCarthy was ousted in October. He’s respected enough by his colleagues to have once been touted as a future speaker himself someday.

Instead he, Rodgers, and Gallagher have decided they have better things to do with their lives than help craft the laws that will govern the world’s most powerful country—even though their party stands a fair chance of controlling both chambers plus the White House next year, presenting a rare opportunity to move paradigm-shifting legislation.

And they’re not alone:

Retirements like these shouldn’t be happening. But they are, and we all understand why.

In a different timeline, Mike Gallagher would already be eyeing a presidential run. Young, handsome, a Marine Corps veteran, credentialed with a B.A. from Princeton and a doctorate from Georgetown, possessed of loads of China-hawk credibility per his committee stint—he has everything the Republican Party of 2015 could want. Even his lifetime score in Heritage Action’s conservative “scorecard” for House members is above average.

But he’s a misfit in the Republican Party of 2024.

According to former GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Gallagher flirted with voting to impeach Donald Trump after January 6 before deciding that his job was more important to him than doing the right thing. He did, however, declare that he couldn’t support Trump in good conscience in this year’s presidential primary and stuck to that position last year when pressed on it. Last week, he disappointed populists again when he voted against impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, a principled stance on the legal merits but unforgivable in a post-liberal party that views politics as war.

A few days later, when Gallagher announced his surprise retirement, MAGA types on social media rejoiced.

I suspect he would have survived a primary from whichever populist lackwit ended up being scraped off the bottom of Trump’s shoe to challenge him. But you can understand why the prospect of a race like that might lead Mike Gallagher to conclude that Congress is no longer worth the trouble. Realistically, a traditional Republican like him has only two paths to reelection going forward. He can choose to pass every litmus test MAGA throws at them—making him indistinguishable from the aforementioned lackwit who might replace him in Congress—or he can go his own way and resign himself to difficult, grinding primary battles unto eternity, possibly with Donald Trump himself backing his opponent.

It’s Trump’s party now, root and branch. The results in Iowa and New Hampshire have crushed what little was left of the conservative resistance. Why would any decent Republican want to continue with it?

That’s especially true for figures like Gallagher, Rodgers, and McHenry, all of them “work horses” in a House conference increasingly populated by “show horses.” It feels like more than a coincidence that Rodgers and Gallagher decided to follow through on retirement days after the Senate immigration deal brokered by James Lankford blew up on the launchpad on Trump’s say-so. Imagine being a committee chair in the House and watching that spectacle, knowing that your own painstakingly produced legislative product could suffer the same fate on a whim if it happens to complicate the leader’s short-term political needs.

Mike Gallagher has worked too hard to reduce himself to being a rubber stamp for a mercurial sociopath who rules his party by diktat. There’s not even media glory to be had in sticking around and staying in the role of committee chair: The Republican base will always appreciate talented “show horse” demagogues like Matt Gaetz who excel at antagonizing their cultural enemies more than it will “work horse” legislators like Gallagher who aim to constrain America’s actual enemies.

I suspect, though, that there’s another reason Gallagher, Rodgers, and McHenry wanted out now. A second Trump term would be maddening, and not just because it would complicate their legislative work. A second Trump term would surely thrust them into a constitutional crisis or two. Or five. Or 10.

Each has already been forced to vote on two Trump impeachments, and each dutifully did what their party demanded of them (albeit with major misgivings in Gallagher’s case, at least, per Kinzinger). There will likely be more impeachable offenses committed in a second Trump term, possibly graver than those committed during the first. If you’re a Republican running for reelection to the House, you’re signing up to navigate that somehow. Will you continue mindlessly absolving Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors, no matter how hair-raising they might get? Or will you hold him accountable and write your political—and possibly actual—death warrant by doing so?

Even “routine” policy battles might become stomach-churning for conservatives in his second term. What will the House do if President Trump tries to withdraw from NATO? Or starts rounding up thousands of “suspected” migrants indiscriminately? Or slaps tariffs on China so punishing as to risk a global economic slowdown?

If you’re a conservative and you take your ideology seriously, know that you will end up in a high-stakes confrontation with President Trump sooner or later during his second term. And when you do, there’s no question whom your own voters will side with. If you’re resolved to run for reelection this year, you should either resign yourself to doing his bidding unthinkingly going forward or resign yourself to being tossed out of Congress after your next term anyway.

I think Gallagher, Rodgers, and McHenry have come to terms with that and made the right decision for themselves. For a modern Republican, serving in the House majority must be as unhappy as serving in the minority has traditionally been. In both cases, you have no real power—in the latter because you lack the votes to pass legislation and in the former because much of the conference has functionally assigned their votes to Donald Trump to cast.

For eight years, conservatives stuck it out in the party in hopes that “the storm would pass” and reason would reassert itself on the American right. The raft of recent retirements—and there have been many more than just the three I’ve named—suggests that that era is now over and that the era of traditional Republicans heading off into the political wilderness in earnest has begun. The storm won’t pass anytime soon; Trump’s runaway victories in the primaries this year have proved it. Work horses like Gallagher are better off withdrawing, handing this unsalvageable party over to the show horses bent on ruining it, and reemerging later if and when the right is receptive to their leadership again.

For respectable people who remain in the GOP, it’s quitting time. With one exception, it seems.

On the day Mike Gallagher announced his exit from Congress, former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced his interest in entering.

Which was very strange.

It was strange because Hogan has expressed his disdain for being a senator repeatedly. Republicans recruited him aggressively in 2022 to challenge Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen but Hogan passed, complaining at the time to The Morning Dispatch that “with all the divisiveness and dysfunction in Washington, not a lot gets done. It’s basically arguing with 99 other people and hoping to slowly, maybe, get a few things done.” As recently as May of last year, when the GOP reached out to him to run for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Ben Cardin, Hogan’s aides insisted that “he has never been interested in the Senate.”

Now he’s interested. At the very moment that traditional Republicans in Congress are abandoning ship.

Even if he were inclined to take the plunge initially, one would think the trainwreck in the Senate last week over immigration might have changed Hogan’s mind at the eleventh hour. It’s one thing to want to join a conference that Mitch McConnell rules with an iron fist, after all, and quite another to join one in which McConnell’s power is ebbing and Trump’s is rising. (Given his ailing health, McConnell might not even be there next year when Sen. Hogan is sworn in.) The fear Hogan expressed two years ago about the Senate not getting much done is more valid today than it was then. It will only grow more valid as Republicans in the chamber become more MAGA-fied and mindlessly obstructionist.

Yet here he is, suddenly keen to sign up.

As if that isn’t strange enough, if Hogan wins his party’s primary, he’ll share the ballot this fall with his nemesis within the party, Donald Trump. Hogan has been willing to criticize Trump in ways that few other Republicans have. He has endorsed Trump’s remaining primary opponent, and, prior to declaring his Senate candidacy last week, he was floated as a potential Trump opponent on the No Labels ticket. His political positioning as a moderate anti-Trump Republican helped him to a gaudy 73 percent approval rating in staunchly liberal Maryland as governor.

Both of his gubernatorial victories came during midterms, though, when Trump wasn’t on the ballot. This time, he’ll face his state’s gigantic Democratic majority when it’s at the polls en masse to vote for president, spoiling to obliterate the GOP’s hated nominee. To make matters worse, Maryland will also hold an abortion referendum on Election Day that should further mobilize liberal turnout. (As governor, Hogan vetoed a bill that would have expanded abortion access in the state.) Why would he choose to run for Senate now and have to deal with all of that when he could have run two years ago, in an off-year?

It’s not just a threat from the left that he’ll have to deal with, either.

One would hope that even a party as indifferent to winning elections and wielding power effectively as Trump’s post-policy GOP might recognize that Larry Hogan is the Joe Manchin of Maryland. Both men are cursed with having to run in states where the electorate overwhelmingly favors the other party, yet both have done such a canny job of branding themselves as centrists that they’ve managed to win multiple contests against the odds. Just as Manchin is the only Democrat with a prayer of winning statewide in deep red West Virginia, Hogan is the only Republican with a prayer of winning statewide in deep blue Maryland.

And yet.

The good news for lucid Republicans who’d rather have an extra GOP vote in the Senate than an extra Democratic one is that there are no top-tier populist opponents waiting for Hogan in the Senate primary. He declared his candidacy at the last minute, in fact, presumably to catch MAGA forces off-guard before they could scramble and field one against him.

The bad news is that it might not take a top-tier opponent to beat Hogan. Two years ago, he backed a former state commerce secretary to succeed him as the GOP’s nominee for governor. But state legislator Dan Cox, who attended the rally in Washington on January 6 that preceded the insurrection, opposed Hogan’s candidate in that primary, and was predictably endorsed by Donald Trump. Cox won that proxy war and became the Republican nominee for governor before being annihilated in the general election, as expected.

What will Trump do with Hogan himself on the ballot this time?

Maybe nothing. Sen. Steve Daines, the head of the outfit responsible for getting GOP Senate candidates elected this year, endorsed Trump early in his primary campaign to earn some goodwill with the party’s leader. That was viewed as part of a tacit bargain: If Daines was a team player for Trump, he’d expect Trump to be a team player for him in Senate primaries and not sabotage electable Republican candidates in favor of no-hope MAGA types.

On Friday, Daines issued a statement welcoming Hogan to the race. It’s now Trump’s turn to keep up his end of their bargain by not backing a challenger to Hogan in the primary. Will he bite his tongue in the belief that a centrist Republican who can win—and is likely to continue criticizing him—is a better nominee than a MAGA Republican who cannot?

Or, like Mark Levin, will he remain true to the ethos of the Republican hostage crisis by preferring to sabotage his own party than to empower non-populist factions within it?

I know which way I’d bet—which, again, makes Hogan’s decision to run this cycle baffling. Imagine him watching his illustrious political career in Maryland end in a primary at the hands of some dopey conspiratorial populist rando who received Trump’s endorsement as a matter of spite. Why put himself through that when colleagues like New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who declined to run for Senate and face the same predicament in his own home state, have refused?

Larry Hogan is a work horse in a party of show horses. He’ll either lose this race, or he’ll win and his life in a Senate dominated by demagogues like Mike Lee and J.D. Vance will be hell. Why is he running?

I think there are two possibilities.

One, very simply: He’s out of time. Hogan will turn 68 in a few months and won’t have a chance to run for Senate again until 2028, when he’ll have been out of office as governor for six years. He missed his window in 2022, a midterm cycle that generally favored Republicans, and because he did he’s forced to seize this last inopportune chance to remain relevant in politics. The odds of him winning a primary in Trump’s party and a general election in a state that’s more lopsidedly Democratic than California are long, but it’s now or never.

Two: Hogan wants to see a different model of Republican governance on a national stage and senses an unusual opportunity here to provide it.

If he were to make it to the Senate, he’d enjoy an unusual degree of political freedom in how he operates. Again, the Manchin analogy is instructive: Just as Manchin could go his own way on matters like abortion and the filibuster knowing that his party wouldn’t dare primary the only Democrat capable of winning in West Virginia, Hogan could operate on the same assumption in Maryland. He’d pick his spots legislatively to appease both sides, voting to confirm Republican judges while joining Democrats on certain big bipartisan initiatives. “I am running for the United States Senate not to serve one party but to stand up to both parties,” he said frankly in announcing his candidacy.

Depending on where the balance of power in the Senate ends up next year, he might play the same influential tiebreaking role that Manchin himself has played during Joe Biden’s presidency. And when Congress eventually faces a constitutional crisis triggered by Trump, it would mean more civically for a Republican like Hogan to help hold the president accountable than it would for some garden-variety Democrat from Maryland to do so.

Needless to say, it’s very unlikely that Maryland Republicans will be as patient with him in defying the party line as West Virginia Democrats were with Manchin, but Hogan might be willing to let it rip in the Senate for six years and take the electoral consequences for the sake of giving traditional Republicans something to be proud of in their party. If you’re not headed off to the wilderness like Mike Gallagher, you should do what you can within the structure of the GOP itself to constrain Trump. That’s what Hogan intends to do—I think. Good luck to him, if so.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.