House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce announced Monday he will not run for reelection, boosting Democrats' chances of winning his Southern California district as they work to regain control of the U.S. House this year.
The Republican from Fullerton was the first of his California colleagues to announce a retirement in what's expected to be a tough year for the GOP.
Surprised party leaders learned that Royce would not seek reelection when the 13-term congressman published his announcement on Twitter, saying he wanted to concentrate on his final year as committee chairman, according to a GOP source who asked not to be named in order to discuss private conversations.
The 66-year-old Royce didn't mention the prospect of a difficult reelection campaign in his statement. But Royce, whose district is partly situated in the battleground of Orange County, was among the House lawmakers considered vulnerable in the upcoming midterm elections.
The district backed Hillary Clinton for president by eight percentage points in 2016, and Royce had drawn challenges from a handful of viable Democrats.
Still, Royce won reelection in 2016 by 15 percentage points and he had $3.5 million in cash on hand as of the end of September, which put him financially far ahead of his challengers.
His announcement prompted David Wasserman, the editor of the nonpartisan election prognosticator Cook Political Report, to move the district from its "lean Republican" category to "lean Democratic."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had put Royce on its retirement watch list last fall, and said in a statement that Royce's announcement "is another sign of Democrats' growing momentum in 2018." Several of Royce's Democratic opponents released statements joyfully positioning themselves as responsible for Royce's decision to leave Washington. Democrats running in the district include physician Mai Khanh Tran, former Obama administration official Sam Jammal, healthcare executive Andy Thorburn, lottery winner and philanthropist Gil Cisneros, and former Cal State Fullerton professor Phil Janowicz.
The National Republican Congressional Committee said in a statement that it is confident in Orange County's GOP bench: "We have just one message for Democrats who think they can compete for this seat: Bring it on."
Orange County Republicans are scrambling to recruit a new candidate ahead of the March 9 filing deadline. Names that were immediately floated include Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel; former state assemblywoman and onetime Royce staffer Young Kim; former Orange County Republican Party chair Scott Baugh; and Ling Ling Chang, a former state assemblywoman who lost her bid for state Senate by a razor-thin margin in 2016 but won large portions of Royce's district. Both Steel and Baugh have also been discussed as possible replacements for neighboring Rep. Dana Rohrabacher should he decide to retire, and Baugh demurred Monday when asked if he would run.
"There's not a single [Republican] in Orange County that isn't shocked today, and saddened he's leaving Congress." Baugh said. "Typically in these races, there's one or two strong people who emerge within a matter of days, and I think you'll see that."
Royce was the 35th House Republican nationwide to announce plans to leave Congress this year, but his decision was still unexpected.
Though he has reached his term limit as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and it is fairly common for termed-out Republican committee chairs to retire, Royce was known to be interested in leading the House Financial Services Committee.
President Trump recently announced he would nominate Royce's wife, Marie Royce, to be assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, a post that would probably keep her in Washington if she is approved by the Senate. The White House sent her official nomination to the Senate on Monday less than 30 minutes before Royce announced his retirement.
Republican insiders who asked not to be named because of their access to sensitive information said they did not know of any internal polling that should have prompted Royce to withdraw. But a poll paid for by a Democratic-leaning group and released by Public Policy Polling in December showed Royce with a 36% approval rating in his district, and President Trump with a 60% disapproval rating there.
Royce was among the many California Republicans who last year voted for the unpopular effort to replace the Affordable Care Act, and for the GOP tax overhaul.
Born in Los Angeles, Royce grew up mostly in Anaheim. He graduated in 1977 with a degree in business administration from Cal State Fullerton, where he became involved in youth Republican groups.
In 1982, he was working as a tax manager at a cement company in Los Angeles when a group of conservative lawmakers known as the "Cave Men" persuaded him to run for state Senate over dinner at a Black Angus steakhouse. He was 31 when he won, and represented Orange County for a decade in the Legislature, building a reputation as a consensus-builder and a staunch conservative dedicated to criminal justice reform and to shrinking government.
A Los Angeles Times story about Royce published shortly after he was elected to Congress in 1992 described him as looking "more like an earnest insurance salesman … than a right-wing storm trooper."
Before this year, Royce has never faced much of a challenge for his reliably Republican district. Known as a hawk and free-trade advocate, Royce is also regarded as a faithful fundraiser for other members, something that helped him earn the Foreign Affairs Committee gavel.
As chairman, Royce lambasted the Obama administration's foreign policy moves, criticizing how it handled threats from North Korea and Iran. In his retirement statement, Royce said he was especially proud of the committee's work to combat human trafficking, end the ivory trade and cut off funding to terrorist organizations.
In recent months, Royce had tried to tamp down on the controversial antics of Rohrabacher, his neighboring Orange County Republican who leads the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Eurasian policy. Royce halted a trip Rohrabacher was planning to Russia last spring and ramped up restrictions on the types of hearings Rohrabacher could hold.
In his retirement statement, Royce thanked the district for giving him a chance to serve.
"Our district is blessed to be diverse, and I've been successful in part because of my great staff and the relationships we've built with families, businesses and leaders in each of our communities. We've personally helped countless Southern Californians," he said.
6:28 p.m.: This article was updated with additional interviews and information about potential candidates.
3:24 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background on Royce and other details.