Few presidents have taken more public pleasure in seeing one of their party’s own leave office than Donald Trump in his reaction to Rep. Anthony Gonzalez’s announcement that he would not seek reelection.
“1 down, 9 to go!” the former president gloated, in the second of two statements he released Friday celebrating Gonzalez’s exit.
The Ohio Republican’s departure was, of course, a victory for Trump, and the first victim in his post-election crusade against the 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach him.
Shannon Burns, the president of Ohio’s Strongsville GOP, said Gonzalez “was an up-and-coming star, who made, I think, a terrible political calculation, and paid a price for it.” In a district where Trump beat Joe Biden by more than 14 percentage points, Darrell Scott, an Ohio pastor and Trump adviser, said Gonzalez “got out to avoid an embarrassing or humiliating defeat.” And on Capitol Hill, even Trump’s critics could see that Gonzalez’s departure was a sign of Trump’s enduring grip on the party.
“Anthony Gonzalez is one of … the most honorable public servants that I’ve ever known. And the idea that the Republican Party is going to drive people like him out tells you that the party is at a moment that is very perilous for us,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said in an interview, adding “that’s not a party that can lead into the future.”
Yet in forgoing a bruising primary against a Trump-endorsed candidate, Gonzalez also deprived Trump — and the Republican Party at large — of what would have been one of the best test cases in the country of the full extent of the former president’s dominion over the post-Trump GOP.
Gonzalez, despite crossing Trump, was not dead in the water. He had been out-raising Max Miller, a former Trump White House aide endorsed by the former president. Miller has heavy baggage of his own. And with the primary not scheduled to take place until next year, at least some Ohio Republicans did not view the outcome as a foregone conclusion.
“Every political consultant and candidate around the country is looking for a way to measure how much Trump’s endorsement would matter in a Republican primary going forward,” said Ryan Stubenrauch, a Republican strategist based in Ohio. “Who would’ve won a primary between a well-funded incumbent like Anthony Gonzalez and a Trump-backed candidate like Max Miller would have provided great data for that question.”
Former Republican Rep. Jim Renacci, the Ohio lawmaker Gonzalez replaced, said Trump’s endorsement no doubt was “powerful.” But Gonzalez, he said, had “the power of incumbency.”
Renacci said what he heard from people in the district following Gonzalez’s announcement was that Gonzalez was “a quitter.”
It’s a version of that sentiment that may contain the true lesson of Gonzalez’s departure. For some Republicans in a GOP now ruled over by Trump, it isn’t worth the fight. Roughly half of the 241 Republicans in the House when Trump took office have or will have left the chamber by 2023 — and that percentage could grow if more GOP incumbents choose to retire this cycle.
While some departed to join Trump’s administration or seek higher office, roughly 90 have either retired or lost reelection. And there is every reason to believe that Republicans at odds with Trump’s behavior after the election — most significantly his promotion of the lie that the 2020 election was stolen — will slowly be squeezed out. One prominent Republican described the effect on the GOP of Trump’s wrath as diluting the party’s “gene pool” of “principled Republicans.”
For some Republicans, like Gonzalez, the vote to impeach Trump not only represented a fierce rebuke of Trump, but also of their hope that the party could one day expunge the ex-president from its ranks and begin piecing back together the lingering remnants of its former self. Now Gonzalez’s decision to not seek reelection has left the Beltway carefully watching to see if there will be more casualties.
Cheney, of Wyoming, is Trump’s top target in the primaries next year. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, another Republican on Trump’s hit list, may not even have a seat to run for after redistricting. And large swaths of the GOP’s pro-Trump base are now unavailable to Republican candidates who buck the former president.
For his part, Gonzalez maintained that he could have won what he told The New York Times would have been a “brutally hard primary.” But in a party buffeted by Trump, he lamented “the current state of our politics, especially many of the toxic dynamics inside our own party.”
Gonzalez, 36, was not a party dinosaur on his way out. A former NFL football player and Ohio State star, the second-term congressman’s youth and Cuban American heritage were once viewed as a sign of progress in a party desperate to diversify its ranks. A relatively quiet member, he had grown increasingly alarmed by Trump’s behavior even before the Capitol assault, according to GOP sources, though he largely withheld sharing his criticisms publicly.
“He came from outside the political world, but really had built a profile as a professional football player and by all accounts was very likable and doing it for all the right reasons,” said former Rep. Ryan Costello, who retired from the House in 2019 and is considering running for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat. “He was bipartisan, and I think when you look at what it’s like to serve in Congress right now, the reasons that he had for why he was leaving are the sorts of things where you say, ‘Can’t blame him.’”
Costello said, “It’s a shame … You hate to lose people like that due to the way politics is practiced these days.”
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