GOP fears House retirements could set off a wave

Two moderate House Republicans announced surprise retirements this week, quickening the pulse of Republicans waiting to see if a wave of retirements will jeopardize the party’s path to holding the House majority in 2018. 

As President Trump fuels uncertainty in Washington and his low approval rating raises question about whether the GOP can hold the House, there’s concern among Republicans that lawmakers facing tough reelection campaigns might begin to take the road of least resistance and retire.

Lawmakers intending to retire often announce their plans in the period between Labor Day and the end of the year. But this week’s decisions by Reps. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) and Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) to skip reelection bids in competitive districts have fanned speculation once again that the GOP will soon see more lawmakers heading for the exits.

“[Trump] has pretty much failed to be an able leader of pushing the Republican agenda for all these reasons, whether it’s an unfamiliarity with a lot of the policy debates or a lack of support for some of the policy objectives … That’s not a good place if you are thinking about the electoral prospects for the GOP in 2018,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia.

“The rationalizations that might explain why they are not running for reelection could seep into the minds of other Republicans holding these marginal seats. Obviously that could be bad news for [Republicans].” 

Dent, for his part, pointed Thursday to congressional gridlock as the main reason driving him to give up his seat. He said he had been considering retirement since the bruising 2013 government shutdown, but ultimately felt this year was the right time.

“I’m frustrated by the polarization. Every basic task of governing becomes awfully difficult around here. Just keeping the government open or not defaulting,” Dent told reporters.

“All these types of issues just become much heavier lifts,” Dent said, sighing. “And because we can’t do basics, we can’t get those down, it makes it difficult to take on the big issues of tax reform, infrastructure, health care.”

Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats in order to flip the House. The path of least resistance includes victories in many of the 23 GOP-held districts that Hillary Clinton carried, and each retirement in those districts improves Democratic prospects.

Departures by moderates like Reichert, Dent and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who announced her impending retirement earlier this year, will also cost Republicans by forcing them to spend more money to keep the seats. While the seats held by Reichert and Ros-Lehtinen had already been on House Democrats’ radar because Clinton won in those districts, Republicans would have had an edge if the incumbents ran. 

Democrats hadn’t included Dent’s eastern Pennsylvania district on their target list because he was seen as a strong incumbent. Without Dent, though, the district — which has swung between Republicans and Democrats in recent presidential elections — is back in Democrats’ sights.

“It makes holding the majority that much tougher because those are tough seats. And those are very good candidates,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, House Republicans’ campaign arm.

Dent, Reichert and Ros-Lehtinen all outperformed Trump in their districts in November, so their absence will be felt on the ballot.

Dent outran Trump by 12 points, while Reichert bested Trump by 23 points and Ros-Lehtinen outperformed him by 30 points.

A president’s party typically faces strong headwinds in the first midterm after a presidential election, especially in open seats it previously held. A recent analysis by Kyle Kondik at the University of Virginia’s Sabato’s Crystal Ball elections website found that the party in the White House usually loses 11 percent of its vote share in an open seat midterm race, compared with the previous incumbent’s margin two years earlier.

“These open seats can be very vulnerable and difficult to hold,” Skelley said. “If this is the tip of the iceberg for retirements, that will be very bad for the GOP.”

Dent acknowledged that his seat would be tough for Republicans to keep in their column.

“It’s a seat with a slight Republican tilt, although in a year — a midterm — like this, that kind of evens things out quite a bit,” Dent said. “This will be a very competitive seat.”

There are also governing implications if the GOP loses more moderate members.

“It’s a real challenge to lose people of that caliber,” Cole said.

House GOP leaders could rely on the moderate lawmakers in the Tuesday Group and members like Dent, Ros-Lehtinen and Reichert to take tough votes on bipartisan compromises, since they were less likely than colleagues in more staunchly Republican districts to fear primary challenges.

“When you have members like this who are in the Tuesday Group, can work with Democrats, are not the Tea Party-crazies that have held up the president’s legislation — it gives [Trump] more credence to work with Democrats,” a former Senate GOP staffer said.

“When people like Paul Ryan [R-Wis.] are losing reasonable members like Charlie Dent, Dave Reichert and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, where are you going to get those votes looking forward to 2018?”

Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) said the retirements haven’t caused him to think twice about his own career in Washington. Instead, he said he’s definitely running for reelection.

“I’m confident that my views are the views of the overwhelming majority of the district I serve. It’s a district that believes in governing,” Lance told The Hill.

Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), another member of the centrist Tuesday Group, called Dent’s retirement “a loss for the institution” but said his announcement wasn’t a huge surprise.

“Charlie’s been pounding his head against the wall here,” LoBiondo said, touching the marble wall outside the House chamber for effect.

Still, LoBiondo said he had no plans of following Dent out the door.

“I still have high hopes,” he said.

As Republicans hope to hold steady and keep their incumbents from heading out the door, insiders suggest that legislative victories could go a long way toward persuading lawmakers to stay.

That could raise the stakes even further for the party’s push to reform the tax code, the current priority among House Republicans. 

“That gives people like Charlie Dent a reason to get on a plane every Monday,” the former Senate GOP aide said.

“It’s hard being home for August and seeing all the chaos down here. But if it gets a bit better and they can pass something before the Christmas break, that could have a meaningful impact on whether people retire or not.”

Scott Wong contributed.

Tags Dave Reichert Hillary Clinton Paul Ryan

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