Dem push to retake the House complicated by retirements

Dem push to retake the House complicated by retirements
© Greg Nash

Retirements from House Democrats are complicating the Democratic push to retake the majority next year.

Last week’s decision by Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) not to run for reelection means Democrats will soon face three vacancies in Democratic-held districts that President Trump carried last year.

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Democrats are still confident that President Trump’s low approval ratings and voter discontent with a Republican Congress will lead to more Republican retirements and help them expand the map, with four moderates already planning to retire next year.

But with Democrats hoping for the net gain of 24 seats that would hand them the majority, retirements on their own side are complicating the midterm picture.

“These are opportunities for Republicans to stanch the bleeding that could occur in the midterm cycle and even solidify shifts in those districts,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with The University of Virginia. “[Democrats] need to get enough seats to win back the House and that’s made harder when they have to compete in more districts where their incumbents are retiring.”

All three of the top open-seat opportunities come in districts that were on the GOP’s radar for targeting even before the incumbents decided to step down.

They include two seats vacated by Democrats running for higher office — Rep. Jacky Rosen (Nev.), who is running for the seat held by Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerBattle of the billionaires drives Nevada contest Trump’s endorsements cement power but come with risks Collins and Murkowski face recess pressure cooker on Supreme Court MORE (R-Nev.), and Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.), who is running for governor.

Walz has already survived tough election fights since winning the seat in 2006. Last year, he snuck through to reelection by less than 1 percentage point in a district Trump won by 15 percentage points. His decision to trade the seat for the governor’s mansion could be a boon for Republicans in the district.

Rosen won her seat last cycle in another tight race, carrying the day by just over 1 point even as Trump won the district by a similar margin.

Now both Walz and Rosen have forced their party to figure out how to hold the seats without the built-in benefits of incumbency.

One national Republican strategist celebrated the retirements, saying they’ll level the playing field in those swing districts. He’s also hopeful that making the races more competitive for the GOP will divert Democratic resources that would otherwise have been spent on taking Republican seats in states like California.

“These were already trending our way. Now we have them as open seats and the Democrats have to go through the primary process all over again. That’s something they weren’t looking at doing,” the strategist told The Hill. “This is going to make it more challenging for them to cobble together a map or make an effective plan.”

Shea-Porter’s retirement announcement should help the Republican push for her seat, although she would have faced a tough reelection fight if she had run again. Shea-Porter won back her seat in 2016 by just 1.4 percentage points. And Trump won her district by 2 percentage points, making Republicans more bullish about their 2018 chances for the seat.

Shea-Porter has always had trouble holding her seat — she hasn’t won more than 50 percent of the vote since 2008, and traded the seat with Republican Rep. Frank Guinta in each of the past four elections. That’s why some Democrats and independent analysts admit that Shea-Porter’s retirement doesn’t change much for the seat.

Shea-Porter’s absence from the Democratic primary might even help Democrats select a better candidate.

“This may be one of the few instances where a retirement could help a party,” Skelley said. “She won 44 percent of the vote [in 2016] — that’s not terribly reassuring as a candidate with her electoral history.”

Democrats admit that both the Walz and Rosen departures are significant losses for the party’s attempt to hold seats, particularly because of Walz’s proven success winning reelection in a district that was drifting right.

“No question, these are strong incumbents,” one national Democratic strategist said. “But there are many other big openings in a normal midterm, not to mention when [Republicans] are facing these kinds of headwinds.”

Observers point to the fact that the Walz, Shea-Porter and Rosen retirements were motivated by different reasons, including runs for higher office. Four early retirements announced by Republican incumbents, on the other hand, all appear to be a sign that incumbent Republicans in vulnerable seats are nervous about their chances.

“Retirements matter because they open up a seat in a district where incumbents are statistically more likely to win, but they also matter as an indicator of a political climate,” said Jesse Ferguson, a former top aide at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ campaign arm.

That’s a message Democrats have trumpeted since the start of the cycle. They say that legislative malaise, declining Trump favorability and internal Republican battles will prompt more establishment Republicans, many of whom represent more moderate districts, to head for the exit.

Those dynamics, they say, could be accelerated by the threat of primary challenges backed by former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who is already a player in a New York GOP primary, as well as Trump’s public feud with Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerGOP leaders: No talk of inviting Russia delegation to Capitol Collins and Murkowski face recess pressure cooker on Supreme Court Tougher Russia sanctions face skepticism from Senate Republicans MORE (R-Tenn.), which is dominating the news and frustrating moderate Republicans.

So far, four moderate GOP lawmakers are stepping down from the House after this cycle — Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), Dave ReichertDavid (Dave) George ReichertOvernight Energy: Koch backs bill opposing carbon taxes | Lawmakers look to Interior budget to block offshore drilling | EPA defends FOIA process More than 50 Dem House challengers outraise GOP incumbents Lawmakers aim to use spending bill to block offshore drilling MORE (Wash.), Dave Trott (Mich.) and Charlie Dent (Pa.).

“The fact that the Charlie Dents and Dave Reicherts and Bob Corkers don’t want to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic tells you about where we are,” Ferguson said.

Dent made his own reasoning clear in his retirement announcement, pointing to “dysfunction, disorder, and chaos” as influential factors in his decision.

Ros-Lehtinen’s retirement announcement came in late April, prompting Democrats to release a “watch list” of possible GOP retirements. Both Dent and Reichert were on that list.

Reichert and Ros-Lehtinen are both entrenched incumbents who would have been favored in their races. Their departures have put Democrats in great spots to win districts Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGiuliani: Mueller told us he'd wrap up Trump obstruction probe by Sept. 1 McAuliffe: We should look at impeaching Trump over Putin summit Graham: DOJ official was 'unethical' in investigating Trump campaign because his wife worked for Fusion GPS MORE won in 2016.

  Trott’s seat will be a tougher push for Democrats, since Trump won the district by 4 percentage points. And Dent’s seat will be an even tougher flip, with Trump winning the district by 8 points.

But in a midterm election, particularly with a president’s party historically facing headwinds, anything is possible. The margin in an open seat midterm race for the president’s party is typically 11 points closer than in the previous election, according to analysis of recent races by the University of Virginia’s Kyle Kondik.

Reichert and Ros-Lehtinen both won reelection last year by less than that, while Trott won by 13 points and Dent won by 20 points. Typical midterm trends would put most of those races well within striking distance for Democrats, while the unique dynamics of this cycle could threaten to put Trott and Dent’s seats in play.

That would also mean that, despite the retirements, the seats held by Shea-Porter and Rosen are still well within the Democrats’ grasp. But holding Walz’s seat will be harder.

Right now, Democrats and Republicans are focusing on recruiting the right candidates in all of these states, keenly aware that candidate strength can make the difference in an open seat. So far, most of the races have pulled top candidates on both sides, with others mulling bids. 

But the map is far from settled. Skelley’s own research found that over the past seven cycles, 63 percent of retirements came between November and March. So while Republicans are currently keeping pace with their rivals in terms of retirements, that could change.

“We haven’t reached peak retirement season,” Skelley said. “Odds are, there are a few more coming.”