Republican Retirements Raise Talk of Democratic Wave in November
Posted January 9, 2018 3:30 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress, including several powerful committee chairmen, are rushing to retire rather than face re-election in the fall, a clear recognition that President Donald Trump’s low approval rating will be a heavy weight on the party even with an improving economy.
Monday’s retirement announcement by Rep. Ed Royce of California, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, brought to 30 the number of Republicans who either will be leaving office or seeking one other than in the House. Royce’s announcement punctuated an accelerating trend that leaves his party on treacherous footing in its effort to maintain control of Congress.
And more are coming. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., is expected to announce this week that she will leave her swing-district seat to run for the Senate.
History is not on the side of Republicans, but they still have some structural advantages that give them hope.
Democrats need to gain 24 seats to control the House, and the president’s party has lost an average of about 30 seats in midterm elections, with notable exceptions caused by extraordinary events. In 1934, Democrats picked up seats as Franklin Delano Roosevelt dealt with the Great Depression and, in 2002, Republicans made gains as President George W. Bush rallied the country after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
But losses are far more the rule. The best argument Republicans can make for maintaining control may be the number of candidates running in heavily gerrymandered, Republican-dominated districts.
The retirement of Royce, who represents a Southern California suburban district that Hillary Clinton won by 9 percentage points in 2016, presents Democrats with just the kind of opportunity they had been hoping to seize. Educated, affluent districts in the suburbs will be the battle zones of 2018.
“When you see the sheer level of retirements by very senior Republicans, you see them running scared, wanting to go out on their own terms and seeing the writing on the wall,” said John Lapp, a Democratic consultant who was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006 when his party wrested control of the House from Republicans.
Lapp said that one major difference in this cycle is that signs of a possible shift in power are occurring earlier. Democrats struggled to recruit candidates, especially in districts that lean conservative. Now, he said, they have an abundance of challengers to choose from in most places.
“The real difference is that people really know that Republicans are in control of every lever of government, and they are mad as hell about it,” he said, “and they want to make a change.”
While the president’s party almost always drops seats in a midterm election, the losses have averaged 40 seats since 1962 when the president’s approval rating is under 50 percent. Trump’s numbers are below 40 percent in most polls, the worst of any president at this point in his term in the history of polling. His ratings are also far worse than any first-term president when the unemployment rate is under 5 percent.
President Bill Clinton’s approval rating in November of 1994 was 46 percent, and Democrats lost 54 House seats and control of the chamber for the first time since the 1950s. President Barack Obama’s approval rating in November 2010 was around 50 percent when Republicans won 63 seats.
Some of Trump’s policies are making it difficult for incumbents as well.
Last week, the administration said it would dramatically expand the coastal areas open to offshore drilling, a policy that is opposed by many members of Congress who live in districts along the Florida, South Carolina and Virginia coasts and Pacific Seaboard. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ move to free prosecutors to more aggressively enforce federal marijuana laws has prompted breaks from the president by prominent Republicans in states where marijuana is legal, such as Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Many of the Republicans who are retiring are among the more moderate members of their party in Congress, such as Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. Many were known for the power of chairing committees or for strong constituent service, or both. Among the retirees are the chairmen of the House Foreign Relations, Judiciary, Financial Services, Transportation and Science committees.
Republicans in recent days, and Trump, have been talking up the idea of bipartisanship in 2018, in part to try to make the case to suburban voters that they can be accommodating. So far, they do not have results to match their words.
To be sure, Democrats also have vulnerable members retiring, and the party, unlike Republicans in 1994, have struggled to give voters an agenda to support other than opposing Trump.
“There’s no question that this is a referendum on Republican control and Republican policymaking,” Lapp said. “That said, Democrats do need to have a plan, they do need to be for something and be more than just not the other guy.”
Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, countered the glee from Democrats over Royce’s retirement. “Orange County has no shortage of Republican talent,” he said in a statement, adding, “We have just one message for Democrats who think they can compete for this seat: bring it on.”