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-LehtinenHigh-speed rail getting last minute push in Congress Bottom line Bottom line 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 IssaGOP leans into racial issues ahead of midterms 'I want to cry': House Republicans take emotional trip to the border Musicians, broadcasters battle in Congress over radio royalties 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 RoyceBottom line California was key factor in House GOP's 2020 success Top donor allegedly sold access to key politicians for millions in foreign cash: report MORE, also called it quits.

Asked for his reaction to Issa’s retirement, Democratic Whip Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerProgressives camp outside Capitol to protest evictions House adjourns for recess without passing bill to extend federal eviction ban Top Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure 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 ClintonClintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote 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 TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement 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 McConnellBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sets new vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire 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 Rohrabacher'Blue wave' Democrats eye comebacks after losing reelection Former Rep. Rohrabacher says he took part in Jan. 6 march to Capitol but did not storm building On The Trail: The political losers of 2020 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 WaldenEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Ex-Rep. John Shimkus joins lobbying firm Lobbying world 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 DentThe Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Influential Republicans threaten to form new party Loyalty trumps policy in Stefanik's rise, Cheney's fall MORE (R-Pa.), Dave TrottDavid Alan TrottFormer GOP Michigan congressman says Trump is unfit for office Pro-Trump Republican immigrant to challenge Dem lawmaker who flipped Michigan seat Meet the lawmakers putting politics aside to save our climate MORE (R-Mich.), Dave ReichertDavid (Dave) George ReichertRep. Kim Schrier defends Washington House seat from GOP challenger Washington Rep. Kim Schrier wins primary Mail ballot surge places Postal Service under spotlight MORE (R-Wash.) and Frank LoBiondoFrank Alo LoBiondoVan Drew-Kennedy race in NJ goes down to the wire Van Drew wins GOP primary in New Jersey Amy Kennedy wins NJ primary to face GOP's Van Drew 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 RyanRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Juan Williams: Biden's child tax credit is a game-changer Trump clash ahead: Ron DeSantis positions himself as GOP's future in a direct-mail piece 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 CramerBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Trump takes two punches from GOP The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands 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 takes two punches from GOP The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Officers recount the horror of Jan. 6 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 UptonEquilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — West Coast wildfires drive East Coast air quality alerts OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Western wildfires prompt evacuations in California, Oregon| House passes bill requiring EPA to regulate 'forever chemicals' in drinking water | Granholm announces new building energy codes House passes bill requiring EPA to regulate 'forever chemicals' in drinking water MORE (R-Mich.), Appropriations Chairman Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenBottom line Republican lobbying firms riding high despite uncertainty of 2020 race Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm MORE (R-N.J.), Rules Chairman Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney Ex-Trump aide Pierson planning run for Congress READ: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results MORE (R-Texas), Rep. Leonard LanceLeonard LanceKean Jr. to run against Malinowski: report Thomas Kean wins GOP primary to take on Rep. Tom Malinowski Gun debate to shape 2020 races MORE (R-N.J.) and Rep. Pete KingPeter (Pete) KingNewsmax anchor Greg Kelly to host New York radio show Top GOP lawmakers call for Swalwell to be removed from Intelligence Committee Republican Garbarino wins election to replace retiring Rep. Pete King 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.