Could More House Retirements Imperil GOP Majority in 2018?

Retirements of three moderates spark fears about more leaving

Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent’s decision makes the race for his 15th District seat more competitive. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent’s decision makes the race for his 15th District seat more competitive. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted September 11, 2017 at 5:03am

House retirements are a staple of each election cycle. But the decision by three moderate Republicans not to seek re-election is worrying party members, already nervous about holding the majority in 2018.

“You hate to have an open seat in what you know is going to be a bad year,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

And Republicans worry that their inability to get things done legislatively could be a self-inflicted wound that compels more members of the conference to leave, thereby further risking the majority.

Trouble in 2018?

Last week, two moderate members of the GOP conference, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania and Dave Reichert of Washington, announced their retirements. Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also said earlier this year she would not be seeking re-election. 

This trio of retirements is particularly concerning for Republicans hoping to hold onto their majority in the House.

“I think people need to remember it’s these moderate members that are actually the majority-makers, and that can win in districts that other people can’t,” said GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.

The incumbents brought advantages to their races, including financial networks, experienced campaign teams, name recognition and popularity in their districts.

“I think it’s hard to find people that can represent districts that are so swingy,” one GOP strategist said. “That’s just something I don’t think generic Republicans stepping in can do … It’s almost like catching lightning in a bottle twice.”

Before these lawmakers announced their retirements, Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rated each district Solid Republican. But without the strong incumbents running again, Ros-Lehtinen’s district shifted to Leans Democrat, Reichert’s moved to Tilts Democrat and Dent’s shifted to Leans Republican.  

14 Ratings Shift Favor Toward Democrats in 2018

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For Republicans, the retirements mean they have to defend even more seats in 2018 when they are already defending incumbents in districts Democrat Hillary Clinton carried in November, and where President Donald Trump is not as popular.

Additional and unexpected open seats, especially in districts with expensive media markets, could put further strain on resources.

“That puts the majority at risk, frankly,” the GOP strategist said.

Another concern is that a candidate who emerges from the Republican primary may be too conservative to win over more moderate general election voters.

“That’s going to be, honestly, the biggest challenge of this cycle,” the same strategist said.

The strategist suggested the outgoing lawmakers could endorse in the primary, which could push their supporters to back the candidate who could be strongest in the general election.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, who chairs the NRCC’s recruitment effort, was optimistic the GOP would field strong candidates in these races.

“[W]e’re working hard on recruitment, and I feel confident we have top tier candidates,” the New York Republican said.

But Cole, the former NRCC chairman, warned that if Republicans lose the majority, that could cause even more of the Republicans in competitive districts to step down in 2019. Cole said lawmakers who survive 2018 would not want to go through another tough campaign just to be in the minority.

“So that’s your nightmare scenario,” he said.

More to come?

More retirements are coming. As Inside Election’s Nathan L. Gonzales pointed out just hours before last week’s two big departure announcements, the number of retirements so far this year is below average.

Members retire for many reasons. Term-limited GOP committee chairmen sometimes don’t want to stick around after giving up their gavels.

The tug of family (and the liberation of not having to commute back and forth to Washington) can often be a precipitating factor. That’s why retirement announcements often come after holiday recesses.

Redistricting and scandal can compel others to call it quits, as can the threat of a difficult election cycle.

“None of those three were going to lose, even in tough seats,” Cole said of the three moderates who have announced their retirements this year.

“They had just decided they’d done what they wanted to do here,” he added.

Dent said he wasn’t worried about his re-election, either in the primary or the general, but he acknowledged that 2018 is likely to be rough for Republicans and that could cause others to retire.

And with an unpredictable president with a penchant for attacking members of his own party, Republicans will be subjected to plenty of intraparty attacks that could make running for re-election unattractive.

“In this environment, as a Republican member, you are going to get it from both sides,” Pennsylvania Rep. Ryan A. Costello said.

And then there are those members who have just had enough, either because they’ve been around so long or they’re just fed up with Congress’ inability to get things done. Dent alluded to that dysfunction in explaining his decision.

Of course, not all members are fed up enough to leave. Kinzinger suggested that passing a tax overhaul could alleviate some of members’ frustration.

“If we can get that done, I think a lot more people will be encouraged to stay,” the Illinois Republican said.

Still, being in the House, even in the majority, isn’t easy. It’s “pretty miserable,” one GOP operative said in an email.

“The general dysfunction, topped with angry protesters, and the wild mood swings of the president — all of which you are asked to comment on thrice daily by the media. It’s no way to live,” the same operative said.

Republican strategists believe that impending retirements won’t be limited to moderates in their conference. Conservatives could decide to call it quits too.

“It could be on all sides,” New York Rep. Peter T. King said. “Maybe the Freedom Caucus guys will leave after the president makes his deal with Chuck Schumer.” 

So the first week back from August recess is likely just a preview.

“January is going to be a real test because members are almost certainly going to have a miserable December in-session (thanks to President Trump’s deal with Schumer and Pelosi) and they’re going to go home, be with their families and wonder why they want to keep dealing with the mess and dysfunction in Washington,” another GOP operative said in an email.

“And the challenge that leadership has is: What argument do you make to members right now who are contemplating retirement?” the operative continued.