A flurry of Republican retirements in recent weeks has further weakened the party’s hold on the House heading into the midterms — and the exodus probably isn’t over.
California GOP Reps. Darrell Issa and Ed Royce both bailed on their reelection campaigns in the past 48 hours, bringing the total of Republican-held open seats to a staggering 29 districts, a figure that includes lawmakers seeking higher offices. The Issa and Royce retirements open up seats that Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 presidential race and will be more difficult — and expensive — for Republicans to defend, particularly if the party is swept under a Democratic wave.
“There’s no putting lipstick on that: They’re both competitive districts,” Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in an interview Wednesday.
Stivers, who said he believes the party will keep control of the House, still cautioned that more retirements could be coming — a statement likely to rattle Republicans’ nerves.
“We’re talking to a handful [of members],” Stivers said. “There’s not much hand-holding now because people have pretty much made their decision. Filing days are coming, so I think we’re pretty much through it.”
Those pending filing deadlines — California’s is on March 9 — mean members who have been on the fence, or who are facing dauntingly poor poll numbers, could join Issa and Royce in heading for the exits in the coming weeks. The early indicators of a wave election are glaring: Democrats won a handful of off-year and special elections in 2017. Even where they fell short of victory, the party performed better than expected. President Donald Trump’s approval ratings are stuck around 40 percent. And Democrats have a double-digit lead on the House generic ballot in most polls.
“This is the final window, so I expect the next month or so, we’ll see the last wave of retirements,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who chaired the NRCC for two cycles in the 1990s and 2000s. “This is not 2006, and it’s not 1994 yet. But I do think the atmospherics are factored into these members rationale for retiring.”
The 44 House members not seeking reelection this year — 29 in Republican-held seats and 15 in Democratic-held seats — puts 2018 in the company of past wave-year elections when control of the House changed hands.
In 1994, 49 House members retired and Republicans netted 54 seats, according to Brookings Institution’s Vital Statistics on Congress. In 2006, 28 lawmakers retired and Democrats picked up 30 seats. And in 2010, 32 members retired and Republicans won 63 seats.
Not all Republican retirements carry the same weight in the battle for the House. Some committee chairmen calling it quits are prevented by internal party rules from remaining at the helm of their committees in the next Congress if Republicans hold the majority. Those include Reps. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), Lamar Smith (Texas), Bob Goodlatte (Va.), Bill Shuster (Pa.) and Gregg Harper (Miss.) — each of whom represent safe Republican seats.
But Issa and Royce — along with retiring Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), Dave Reichert (Wash.), Charlie Dent (Pa.), Dave Trott (Mich.) and Frank LoBiondo (N.J.) — represent competitive districts. Clinton carried the seats currently held by Issa, Royce, Ros-Lehtinen and Reichert. A fifth GOP-held Clinton seat will likely open up later this week, with Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) expected to announce she will run for the Senate.
Taken together, Republicans see all the retirements and open seats as an indication that the 2018 elections are likely to follow historical patterns: The president’s party loses, on average, 23 seats in the House in the first midterm election of a new administration, going back to Franklin Roosevelt.
“It’s obviously the sign of an ugly cycle ahead,” said Adrian Gray, a Republican pollster. “Oftentimes, these ugly cycles appear early, and people see writing on the wall.”
Davis, the former NRCC chair, agreed.
“Every time another Republican retires, it makes it better for House Democrats — no denying that,” he said. “This is not what you want to see because, when we’ve seen these types of retirements in the past, as a general rule, a bad year follows.”
Democrats must also contend with a handful of open battleground seats. Nevada Rep. Jacky Rosen is running for Senate, Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz is running for governor and New Hampshire Rep. Carol Shea-Porter is retiring. All three represent districts that Trump carried in 2016.
The sheer number of GOP open seats isn’t only troubling for what it portends historically, though. The vacancies force Republicans to spend heavily in a growing number of districts without the advantages of incumbents’ built-in name recognition and fundraising network.
Republicans believe their fundraising — bolstered by strong money hauls by the Congressional Leadership Fund, the flagship House GOP super PAC — serves as a firewall against an energized liberal base and long list of open seats. Congressional Leadership Fund and its associated nonprofit, American Action Network, announced this week that they had raked in $66 million over the course of 2017.
“Any time you’ve got to recruit new candidates and raise money from the ground up, it’s a more expensive proposition. But Republicans are posting historic numbers, and they’ve seen this coming from a mile away,” said Chris Grant, a Republican consultant. “To that the extent there’s any storm, they’re prepared to weather it.”
That storm is easy to see building, even if the long-range forecast for November is less clear. Trump’s approval rating is just under 40 percent in the RealClearPolitics average. Democrats have an 11.5-point lead on the generic ballot, on average — a lead consistent with making up the two-dozen seats the party needs to win control later this year.
Trump’s poll numbers were warning signs for Issa and Royce in California, said Rob Stutzman, a GOP consultant there.
“There’s no denying that this is real evidence of how difficult Republican success can be in California,” said Stutzman. “But as with retirements elsewhere, for Republicans in districts that Trump lost, [Trump’s] performance is a substantial factor.”
Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Wednesday that the retirements on Issa, a very wealthy self-funder, and Royce, who had $3.5 million in his campaign account as of Sept. 30, are signs that some Republicans are deciding money can’t save them.
“Momentum is on our side as Democrats this cycle. History is on our side. But while I see a clear path to the majority, these are all tough elections,” Luján said. “But the very nature that you see members of Congress in California [retiring] like Congressman Royce and Congressman Issa — both who have robust resources in their reelection accounts as well as personal wealth — I think sends a loud signal.”
Stivers, his GOP counterpart, acknowledged that “history is against us, and the presidential polling, too.” But he noted that Democrats failed to flip any GOP-held districts in special elections last year.
Despite the retirements, Stivers said Wednesday he thinks that Democrats are still “10 to 15 seats short” of really putting the House up for grabs.
“They’re getting more seats in play,” Stivers added. “I think at this point they need another 10 to 15 seats [to put the House] in play. They’re still not there yet. But they’re moving in the right direction, clearly.”
Heather Caygle and Steven Shepard contributed to this report.
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