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What Trump critic Anthony Gonzalez leaving Congress means for Republicans

Anthony Gonzalez says he's not running for reelection and declares Trump a "cancer for the country."
Photo illustration: A piece of paper with an image of Anthony Gonzalez torn out of a paper with the image of Donald Trump.
Rep. Anthony Gonzalez has endured threats against him and his family after voting to impeach Donald Trump.MSNBC / Getty Images

Just 10 Republicans voted to impeach former president Donald Trump after he incited a mob to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan 6th. Now one of them is leaving Congress — and calling the most popular figure in his party “a cancer for the country” on the way out.

The unexpected retirement marks a victory for Trump's agenda to oust Republicans from the party whom he perceives as disloyal, and underscores his continuing control over its direction.

Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R.-Ohio, announced on Thursday his decision to not seek reelection just two terms into a once-promising congressional career, despite winning his last election in a landslide. In his announcement the 36-year-old former NFL player cited a desire to “build a fuller family life,” but also described “the toxic dynamics inside our own party” as a significant factor in his decision.

Given the intensity of the Trumpification of the GOP, it’s certainly possible that Gonzalez's retirement won’t be the last.

While Gonzalez told the New York Times that he plans to spend his energy making sure Trump won’t become president again, it’s hard to read this moment as anything other than a win for the man, who endorsed one of his former White House aides as a primary challenger to Gonzalez in February. Trump himself certainly saw it as a moment to gloat: “One down, nine to go,” Trump said in statement. Given the intensity of the Trumpification of the GOP, it’s certainly possible that Gonzalez's retirement won’t be the last.

Gonzalez was not a Never Trump Republican — he mostly agreed with Trump’s policy outlook. But he drew a line after the events of Jan. 6th, and saw it as conduct worthy of impeachment.

The backlash to that judgment call has been substantial. The Ohio Republican Party not only censured him but alo called for his resignation, while calling the impeachment efforts meritless.

After that vote, Gonzalez has endured threats against him and his family. He described having to be escorted by security guards through an airport as an “eye-opening” moment that made him reflect further on the toll that his job was taking on his family life.

And Trump enlisted a 32-year-old former aide to try to take him down in a Republican primary — in a state that he handily won twice during his presidential runs.

It’s certainly possible that Gonzalez calculated that his odds of beating Miller were low. But given his past performances in the district, it seems plausible that he’s genuinely being driven away by the nature of the challenge against him. “Politically the environment is so toxic, especially in our own party right now,” he told the Times. “You can fight your butt off and win this thing, but are you really going to be happy? And the answer is, probably not.”

Gonzalez declining to run again has opened up a wider lane for Miller, and provided an opportunity for Trump to revel in what he saw as Gonzalez’s comeuppance. “RINO [Republican in name only] Congressman Anthony Gonzalez, who has poorly represented his district in the Great State of Ohio, has decided to quit after enduring a tremendous loss of popularity, of which he had little, since his ill-informed and otherwise very stupid impeachment vote against the sitting President of the United States, me,” Trump said in a statement.

It’s unclear if other former impeachers who have experienced harsh pushback within their party (like Rep. Liz Cheney, who was ousted from her leadership position within the party in May) will follow in the path of Gonzalez. But if they do, it portends greater homogeneity in the party than already exists.

Gonzalez’s departure also contributes to a broader trend of high Republican turnover during the Trump era producing a more hardline party. And even if Miller wins the seat and doesn’t differ that much from Gonzalez on most ordinary policy matters, his clear alignment with Trump’s anti-democratic agenda and likely inclination to help snub out anti-Trump sentiment in the party does not bode well for the direction of the caucus. If you think the House looks too deferential to Trump now — you’re not going to want to see what it looks like after more and more of his handpicked challengers flood the party.