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Texas trading House seniority for newcomers

Profile image for Will Weissert
Will Weissert, Associated Press

AUSTIN -- Four veteran Texas Republicans are quitting Congress, meaning the country's largest red state will be trading House seniority for newcomers who could prove even more conservative and willing to buck their party's leadership on Capitol Hill.

Sam Johnson, an 87-year-old Vietnam veteran and member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, announced in January he was retiring next year.

Now, fellow Texans Jeb Hensarling, 60, who chairs the influential House Financial Services Committee; Lamar Smith, 69, who heads the House Science, Space and Technology Committee; and long-serving 69-year-old Ted Poe all aren't seeking re-election.

They join two Democratic House members from Texas, Beto O'Rourke of El Paso, who is giving up his seat to challenge Republican Sen. Ted Cruz; and Houston's Gene Green, who announced Monday he wouldn't seek re-election to a seat he first won in 1992.

The four Republicans hail from solidly GOP districts, so the party's 25-11 state congressional delegation advantage won't change without an upset.

None was thought to be facing serious challengers in the state's March Republican primaries. Nor were their exits speeded by major policy or ideology clashes with the Trump administration -- unlike some other members bowing out of Congress.

They could be replaced, though, by current and former Republicans from the Texas Legislature. In recent years state lawmakers have approved abortion restrictions tough enough to be largely struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, America's strictest voter ID law and a "sanctuary cities" ban that calls for jailing sheriffs who don't enforce federal immigration policy. They also nearly passed a "bathroom bill" targeting transgender people, despite a similar measure sparking political upheaval in North Carolina.

Moderate Republican Texas House Republican Speaker Joe Straus himself also isn't seeking re-election, which means the Legislature may move farther to the right in a way mirroring the congressional delegation's coming shift.

"The candidates likely to run and to win in this political environment are likely to be very conservative, to be more interested in fighting for specific policy items than looking to get seniority and go with the majority of the party or with the speaker," said Brendan Steinhauser, a former national conservative grass-roots organizer who later ran U.S. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn's 2014 re-election campaign. "It will absolutely become a race to the right."

Both Hensarling and Smith were being term-limited out of their chairmanships but were well positioned to continue exerting veteran House influence had they stayed. Johnson's and Poe's long congressional tenure would have been an advantage. The Republicans favored to replace them won't have the same clout, but that could free them up to embrace coalitions like the House Freedom Caucus -- hardline conservatives who have bucked the GOP majority on some issues.

"You bet we're going to see some conservatives up here," said Rep. Randy Weber, a former member of the Texas House who was elected to Congress in 2012 and is a Freedom Caucus member.

FEATURED PHOTO: House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 7. He is one of four veteran Texas Republicans who are quitting Congress. (Charles Dharapak/AP)