Bad vibes: House Judiciary Chair Bob Goodlatte to retire

There’s less to this than meets the eye. But the optics of a powerful Republican from Virginia quitting 48 hours after a blue wave in his home state will send shivers down the spines of other House members about what might be coming in 2018.

Goodlatte’s just 65 years old, practically a teenager by congressional standards. Why quit?

For the past 25 years, it has been my honor to represent the Sixth Congressional District of Virginia. I cannot begin to express how blessed I am to have had the opportunity to serve and take part in the great experiment of self-government envisioned by our Founders. It has been a labor of love to work countless hours and travel endless miles on the roads of our District for a quarter of a century.

Every two years, Maryellen and I sat down to discuss whether to run again or not. When we discussed the 2018 election, the conversation ended a little differently than in past years. After much contemplation and prayer, we decided it was the right time for me to step aside and let someone else serve the Sixth District. I will not seek re-election. With my time as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee ending in December 2018, this is a natural stepping-off point and an opportunity to begin a new chapter of my career and spend more time with my family, particularly my granddaughters.

Aha. He’s not term-limited as a congressman, of course, but he is term-limited as a committee bigshot. Thanks to a rule passed by the House GOP in 1994 on the eve of their “Contract With America” takeover, Republicans who chair House committees are limited to six years before they have to give up their gavel. Goodlatte has chaired the Judiciary Committee since 2013 and thus was destined to return to being a backbencher in the next Congress. No thanks, he’s decided. He’s going out on top.

But wait. Given the power of Tuesday night’s Democratic wave in his backyard, could it be that he was worried he’d be unseated next November if he ran again? Better to retire and not have to face the anxiety and potential ignominy of being rejected by his constituents. Take a look at the Northam/Gillespie map, though, and you’ll realize there’s nothing to that theory. Goodlatte’s district is very safely red.

He represents the 6th District, which Ed Gillespie won by a tidy 22 points. Only the 9th is redder in Virginia. Goodlatte would have won easily had he run again.

If there’s a 2018 tea leaf to be read in this, it’s the possibility that Goodlatte feared being not just a backbencher in the new Congress but a backbencher in the minority of a House led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He’s the 10th House Republican since the start of September to announce his retirement and the third this week alone, joining Ted Poe and Frank LoBiando. Four other House Republicans announced their intentions to retire earlier this year. The good news is that many of the retirees hold safe seats: There’s Goodlatte himself, Poe, Lamar Smith, Jeb Hensarling, and several others. (Smith and Hensarling are also about to run into the six-year term limit problem in chairing their own committees.) Not all do, however, and needless to say, even a safe seat is much less safe when it’s being defended by a no-name newbie nominee instead of an incumbent who’s held it for 20+ years. A strong Democratic wave is unlikely to reach Smith’s and Hensarling’s seats in Texas but it could certainly reach one like LoBiando’s in New Jersey and many other light red districts. And the portents from Tuesday night are likely to push some House Republicans who were on the fence about retiring into taking the plunge. Paul Ryan and the NRCC will spend the next two months on the phone pleading with incumbents to stay put. The Virginia wipeout made that harder.

Here’s Steve Bannon, who was touting Gillespie a few days ago as a test case in whether “Trumpism without Trump” could be victorious, now insisting that Gillespie never really embraced the Trump program. All successes flow from emulating Trump, all failures flow from not emulating Trump enough.