Retirements Are Making GOP Control Of House More Precarious
The numbers aren't looking good for Republican prospects in this year's midterm elections.
With the calendar having turned to 2018, attention in Washington, D.C. is turning to the midterm elections, and things are not looking good for Republicans in the House thanks in no small part to what is close to becoming a record number of retirements:
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 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,” Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, 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 Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, 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 panels in the next Congress if Republicans hold the majority. Those include Reps. Jeb Hensarling and Lamar Smith of Texas, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, and Gregg Harper of Mississippi — each of whom represent safe Republican seats.
But Issa and Royce — along with retiring Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, Dave Reichert of Washington, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, Dave Trott of Michigan and Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey — 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 of Arizona 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 D. 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.”
Not all of the House Republicans who are declining to run for reelection are retiring from politics, of course. Many are running for higher office, whether it be for Senate or for Governor, for example. Whatever the reason, though, the fact of the retirements alone is something that creates problems for Republicans hoping to minimize the damage of what seems likely to be a tough midterm season as much as possible. As I’ve noted before, the historical norm has been that the President’s party tends to lose seats in Congress in midterm elections, whether that happens during a Presidents first or second term. The only recent notable exception to that norm came in the 2002 midterm elections when Republicans actually gained eight seats in the House of Representatives and two seats in the Senate, but that election took place just fourteen months after the September 11th attacks at a time when President George W. Bush’s job approval numbers were still riding a post-9/11 high that didn’t really come to an end until 2004 or 2005. The more typical outcome has been that the President’s party has lost seats in both chambers. In most cases, the losses have not been significant enough for party control to shift, but more recently we have seen midterm elections that have resulted in significant shifts in power on Capitol Hill. The best examples of this can be found in the House and Senate elections in 2006, which resulted in Democrats regaining control of Congress, the 2010 House and Senate elections, which resulted in the GOP taking back the House and paring down the Democratic majority in the Senate, and the 2014 election, which saw the GOP pick up nine seats in the Senate and 13 seats in House. In other words, in some sense or another, each midterm election since 2006 has resulted in a shift in party control in at least one chamber of Congress. As I said, this is historically unusual but it does seem to be something of a recent trend that arguably bodes well for Democrats in 2018.
In addition to the number of retirements, other data points toward a good year for Democrats this year. The President’s job approval remains at historic lows and has recently continued its negative trend after seeming to stabilize somewhat over the holidays. The benchmark Right Track/Wrong Track poll shows that the vast majority of Americans continue to believe that the country is on the wrong track, typically a sign that they are in the mood for voting for change at the next election. Additionally, Congressional Job Approval remains exceedingly negative, although this number has been negative for such a long period of time that it’s unclear that it actually means anything regarding what’s likely to happen at the polls in November. In terms of more relevant numbers, the Generic Congressional Ballot continues to look good for Democrats. The latest such poll from Quinnipiac gives Democrats a 17 point advantage over Republicans. According to the RealClearPolitics, the average advantage for Democrats stands at +11,8 points, with an average of 48.8% of respondents saying that they would vote for a Democrat in November and 37.0% saying they would vote for a Republican. Pollster’s Generic Ballot average puts the number at 42.5% for Democrats and 34.6% for Republicans, and the numbers from FiveThirtyEight show 48.8% saying they’d vote for a Democrat and 37.4% saying they’d vote for a Republican. It’s worth keeping in mind that the Generic Ballot doesn’t necessarily indicate that we’re looking at a shift in party control in November, especially since it is generally the case that midterm elections tend to see more Democratic votes than Republican ones nationwide since Democrats tend to represent districts with higher populations such as those in major cities. However, it does give us at least some indication of where voters minds are as we head into what is likely to be a hard-fought midterm election year. At the very least, these numbers, and the retirements on Capitol Hill should make Republicans very nervous.
Update: This post was updated to include the numbers released today from Quinnipiac’s new Generic Congressional Ballot poll.