GOP angst over midterms grows

For some Republicans, it’s starting to feel like 2006 — a wave election year that swept Democrats back into power in the House and Senate.

The retirement of two longtime California Republicans this week — just the latest in a string of House Republicans heading for the exits — has caused panic among some in the GOP who say it’s yet another sign that an anti-Trump, Democratic wave is forming.

“It’s a tough election cycle for Republicans; we know that going in,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-LehtinenIleana Carmen Ros-LehtinenHouse GOP starts summer break on a note of friction Rosenstein impeachment push divides House GOP leadership Key primaries in August will help shape midterms MORE (R-Fla.), who is not running for reelection after representing a heavily Hispanic Miami district for nearly 30 years.

“It’s starting to feel very scary for moderate Republicans,” she said.

Rep. Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaDems eyeing smaller magic number for House majority Dems make big play for House in California Clinton maxes out to 19 Democratic House candidates MORE, who won reelection by a slim 1,621-vote margin in 2016, said Wednesday this term would be his last, despite insisting for months that he was running for reelection.

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The stunning announcement from the former Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman came just two days after another veteran Republican from Southern California, Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceSteyer group launching 0,000 digital ad campaign targeting millennials It’s possible to protect national security without jeopardizing the economy Dems seek GOP wipeout in California MORE, also called it quits.

Asked for his reaction to Issa’s retirement, Democratic Whip Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerThree scenarios for how leadership races could play out in the House House Dem: Party's aging leaders is 'a problem' Clyburn: I'll run for Speaker if Pelosi doesn't have enough votes to win MORE (Md.) paused, smiled, then exclaimed: “We’re gonna win the House back!”

The pair of retirements in California has altered the 2018 midterms landscape, forcing the House GOP’s campaign arm to decide whether it will defend two districts that overwhelmingly voted for Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonArizona GOP Senate candidate defends bus tour with far-right activist Santorum: Mueller could avoid charges of McCarthyism by investigating DOJ, FBI Giuliani claims McGahn was a 'strong witness' for Trump MORE in 2016 or shift resources elsewhere.

Winning both districts could be costly. San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, who’s led a campaign to impeach President TrumpDonald John TrumpArizona GOP Senate candidate defends bus tour with far-right activist Alyssa Milano protests Kavanaugh in 'Handmaid's Tale' costume Bomb in deadly Yemen school bus attack was manufactured by US firm: report MORE, this week pledged $30 million to help Democrats take back the House and said he would specifically target Issa.

Republicans have other reasons to be worried about the elections, including Trump’s approval rating, which sits in the high 30s.

History shows that a president’s party typically loses an average of 32 House seats during a midterm election. But Ros-Lehtinen said Trump might be a bigger liability than past GOP presidents in many parts of the country.

“In many districts like Darrell’s and mine, having President Trump an ever-present figure is a drag on the ticket,” she said. “In many districts, he’s a positive, but in districts like mine, it doesn’t help the Republican candidate.

“The Trump symbol, the Trump brand and Mr. Trump himself is a drag on moderate districts.”

The wave of GOP retirements in competitive districts also has set off alarm bells among some senior Republican strategists.

“I’m alarmed, but we should have already been alarmed. It’s a tough environment, and there’s a chance the Republicans can lose control of the House,” said Scott Jennings, a GOP political strategist who has worked on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump stays out of Arizona's ugly and costly GOP fight Sen. Warner to introduce amendment limiting Trump’s ability to revoke security clearances The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE’s (R-Ky.) reelection campaigns.

“It’s starting to feel like 2006 to me,” he added, “which was a bad year for Republicans.”

Democrats picked up 31 House seats in 2006, a victory that propelled them forward to win complete control of Washington in 2008.

This year, House Democrats need to flip 24 GOP-held seats to win back the majority. And the path to that new majority runs right through Orange County and San Diego, where traditional Republican districts like Royce’s and Issa’s have been getting more diverse and trending bluer.

Other top Democratic targets in Southern California include GOP Reps. Mimi Walters, Steve Knight and Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherFBI probing cyberattack targeting second California Democrat: report Steyer group launching 0,000 digital ad campaign targeting millennials Hillicon Valley: Trump revokes Brennan's security clearance | Twitter cracks down on InfoWars | AT&T hit with crypto lawsuit | DHS hosts election security exercise MORE, a lawmaker whose ties to Russia are receiving extra scrutiny amid the investigations into 2016 election meddling.

“You can’t hold this majority if you lose California districts because California districts look like suburban Pennsylvania districts and New Jersey [swing] districts,” explained Rep. Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenThree scenarios for how leadership races could play out in the House House committee considering subpoena for Twitter CEO: report Top Republicans concerned over impact of potential Trump drug rule MORE (R-Ore.), who served as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) during the successful 2014 and 2016 cycles.

“It’s a big concern,” a GOP aide said of the pair of California retirements. “These Orange County seats are majority makers.

“I hope [Rohrabacher] retires,” the aide added. “That’s a seat that can be held.”

But other retirements certainly aren’t helping the GOP. In addition to Issa, Royce and Ros-Lehtinen, moderate Reps. Charlie DentCharles (Charlie) Wieder DentGOP House candidate placed on leave from longtime position after sexual misconduct allegation Election handicapper moves GOP leader's race to 'toss-up' The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Pa.), Dave TrottDavid Alan TrottRecord numbers of women nominated for governor, Congress Key primaries in August will help shape midterms GOP doubles female recruits for congressional races MORE (R-Mich.), Dave ReichertDavid (Dave) George ReichertElection Countdown: GOP worries House majority endangered by top of ticket | Dems make history in Tuesday's primaries | Parties fight for Puerto Rican vote in Florida | GOP lawmakers plan 'Freedom Tour' Democrat Kim Schrier advances in Washington primary Overnight Energy: Koch backs bill opposing carbon taxes | Lawmakers look to Interior budget to block offshore drilling | EPA defends FOIA process MORE (R-Wash.) and Frank LoBiondoFrank Alo LoBiondoDems eyeing smaller magic number for House majority GOP campaign arm withdraws support from NJ House candidate who made racist statements GOP runs into Trump tax law in New Jersey MORE (R-N.J.) are not seeking reelection, providing more pick-up opportunities for Democrats.

The Cook Political Report, a campaign handicapper in Washington, moved Royce’s seat from “lean Republican” to “lean Democratic” this week; it moved Issa’s seat from “toss up” to “lean Democratic.”

“If you’re NRCC chairman, the last thing you want is a retirement in almost every case,” Walden told The Hill.

But he added that retirements sometimes allow a party to recruit a strong candidate who doesn’t have the political baggage of a veteran lawmaker.

“It does allow a reset,” Walden said.

Walden and many other senior Republicans insist they aren’t panicking, despite the fresh warning signs. Because of 2010 redistricting, most congressional districts are “baked in,” drawn in a way that favors either Republicans or Democrats, resulting in fewer swing districts than in past decades.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanThree scenarios for how leadership races could play out in the House New Dem ad uses Paterno, KKK, affair allegations to tar GOP leaders House Dem: Party's aging leaders is 'a problem' MORE (R-Wis.) and other Republicans believe they have a winning campaign message in 2018, as most Americans will see a boost in their paychecks and lower tax bills following the historic passage last month of the tax overhaul. Republicans are also touting a slew of regulatory reforms and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

“I think it’s more likely that the House would change majorities than the Senate, given the map,” said Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerOvernight Health Care: Supreme Court nomination reignites abortion fight in states | Trump urges Sessions to sue opioid makers | FDA approves first generic version of EpiPen Vulnerable Dem Sen. Heitkamp hits opponent on ObamaCare repeal votes Overnight Energy: Trump Cabinet officials head west | Zinke says California fires are not 'a debate about climate change' | Perry tours North Dakota coal mine | EPA chief meets industry leaders in Iowa to discuss ethanol mandate MORE (R-N.D.), “but we have also done some good things that we can campaign on, and hopefully we will do some good things [this year] that we will continue to campaign on.”

Jennings, the GOP strategist, said he has a high degree of confidence in Ryan and the campaign team led by current NRCC Chairman Steve StiversSteven (Steve) Ernst StiversTrump sends, deletes tweet urging Ohio voters to support candidate not in special election GOP rep: ‘Things are moving our way’ ahead of midterms Trump threatens government shutdown over border security MORE (R-Ohio), especially given their big legislative victory on taxes.  

Two Ryan-aligned super PACs — the American Action Network and Congressional Leadership Fund — said they raised a record $66 million in 2017, helping the latter to open offices in 27 GOP-held districts this cycle, including in California.

“I know the political team around Speaker Ryan has been anticipating open seats in tough districts. I don’t think anyone is caught flat-footed,” Jennings said. “But what I’m worried about is the macro conditions that appear to be lining up against Republicans.”

“The Republicans can hang on ... but it’s gonna take a lot of focus and smart campaigns,” he added.

Some GOP sources familiar with the NRCC’s operation are conceding the party could lose as many as 15 seats this fall, but that would still keep the House in Republican hands.

The wild card, of course, is whether any more vulnerable Republicans decide they’ve had enough of Congress. Other long-serving Republicans who’ve landed on Democrats’ retirement watch list include former Energy Chairman Fred UptonFrederick (Fred) Stephen UptonKey primaries in August will help shape midterms Energy security must be high on the agenda Paul Ryan would be ‘perfect fit’ to lead AEI, Republicans say MORE (R-Mich.), Appropriations Chairman Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenDems eyeing smaller magic number for House majority Puerto Rico mayor: Territory's profile has grown since hurricanes House panel advances homeland security bill with billion in border wall funding MORE (R-N.J.), Rules Chairman Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsThe Hill's 12:30 Report Vulnerable Republicans include several up-and-coming GOP leaders GOP super PAC expands field program to 40 districts MORE (R-Texas), Rep. Leonard LanceLeonard LanceDems eyeing smaller magic number for House majority Liberal group launches ads targeting Azar over child separations Lawmakers split over how to expand rural broadband MORE (R-N.J.) and Rep. Pete KingPeter (Pete) Thomas KingWashington big names celebrate launch of Hill.TV The Hill's Morning Report — Trump denigrates NATO allies, floats 4 percent solution ‘Unmasking Antifa Act' includes 15-year prison term proposal MORE (R-N.Y.).

So far, all have indicated they are running for another term.

When asked if he would retire after 12 terms in the House, Frelinghuysen replied tersely, “Certainly not.”

Sessions, too, said he’s not going anywhere, even though Clinton beat Trump in his Dallas-area district by roughly 2 percentage points.  

“I still have a good bit of things that I intend not only to get done, but to see through,” Sessions, who’s served since 2003, told The Hill. “This is an important time for our conference to express what we’re doing for the American people [and] to go help sell that fight.”

Melanie Zanona and Cristina Marcos contributed.