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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-LehtinenElectoral battle for Hispanics intensifies in Florida Florida House race in dead heat in district Clinton won in landslide Election Countdown: Big fundraising numbers in fight for Senate | Haley resigns in surprise move | Says she will back Trump in 2020 | Sanders hitting midterm trail | Collins becomes top Dem target | Takeaways from Indiana Senate debate 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 IssaPainting of Trump with past GOP presidents hung up in White House Dems eye ambitious agenda if House flips Poll: Dems lead in 5 critical California House seats 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 RoyceDems struggle to mobilize Latino voters for midterms America’s defense forward swagger Poll: Dems lead in 5 critical California House seats MORE, also called it quits.

Asked for his reaction to Issa’s retirement, Democratic Whip Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerOn The Money: Stocks slide for second day as Trump blames 'loco' Fed | Mulvaney calls for unity at consumer bureau | Pelosi says Dems will go after Trump tax returns Pelosi: Trump tax returns ‘one of the first things we’d do’ if Dems win House GOP sees Kavanaugh as boost for Senate, danger for House 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 ClintonCarter Page files defamation lawsuit against DNC Dems fear party is headed to gutter from Avenatti’s sledgehammer approach Election Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight 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 TrumpKey takeaways from the Arizona Senate debate Major Hollywood talent firm considering rejecting Saudi investment money: report Mattis says he thought 'nothing at all' about Trump saying he may leave administration 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 McConnellJuan Williams: Trump’s policies on race are more important than his rhetoric It’s Mitch McConnell’s Washington – and we’re just living in it Trump makes new overtures to Democrats 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 RohrabacherGOP super PAC pushes back on report it skipped ad buys for California's Rohrabacher, Walters Vulnerable Republicans throw ‘Hail Mary’ on pre-existing conditions Poll: Dems lead in 5 critical California House seats 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 WaldenVulnerable Republicans throw ‘Hail Mary’ on pre-existing conditions GOP senator wants Apple, Amazon to give briefing on reported Super Micro hack Overnight Health Care: Bill banning 'gag clauses' on drugs heads to Trump's desk | Romney opposes Utah Medicaid expansion | GOP candidate under fire over ad on pre-existing conditions 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 DentMidterms put GOP centrists in peril House GOP group cuts financial support for Coffman, Bishop GOP House candidate placed on leave from longtime position after sexual misconduct allegation MORE (R-Pa.), Dave TrottDavid Alan TrottElection Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight House battlefield expands as ad wars hit new peak Dems seek to rebuild blue wall in Rust Belt contests MORE (R-Mich.), Dave ReichertDavid (Dave) George ReichertHow the Trump tax law passed: GOP adds sweeteners House battlefield expands as ad wars hit new peak Election 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' MORE (R-Wash.) and Frank LoBiondoFrank Alo LoBiondoHouse GOP group cuts financial support for Coffman, Bishop Jordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker On The Money: Broad coalition unites against Trump tariffs | Senate confirms new IRS chief | Median household income rose for third straight year in 2017 | Jamie Dimon's brief battle with Trump 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 RyanElection Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight Paul Ryan to campaign for 25 vulnerable House Republicans GOP super PAC pushes back on report it skipped ad buys for California's Rohrabacher, Walters 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 CramerElection Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight Native American tribe slams Supreme Court decision upholding North Dakota voter ID law The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Dem path to a Senate majority narrows 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 StiversFormer TV journalist gives GOP rare dose of hope in Florida House Dem campaign chief presses GOP on banning use of hacked materials Trump is wrong, Dems are fighting to save Medicare and Social 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 UptonMidterms put GOP centrists in peril GOP, White House start playing midterm blame game Dems seek to rebuild blue wall in Rust Belt contests MORE (R-Mich.), Appropriations Chairman Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenFlorida politics play into disaster relief debate On The Money: Stocks slide for second day as Trump blames 'loco' Fed | Mulvaney calls for unity at consumer bureau | Pelosi says Dems will go after Trump tax returns GOP chairman: FEMA has enough money for Hurricane Michael MORE (R-N.J.), Rules Chairman Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsElection Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight Vulnerable Republicans throw ‘Hail Mary’ on pre-existing conditions Marijuana and the midterms MORE (R-Texas), Rep. Leonard LanceLeonard LanceMoney can’t buy happiness or elections, but it makes life easier Dems see blue 'tsunami' in House as Senate path narrows Dems announce third-quarter fundraising bonanza MORE (R-N.J.) and Rep. Pete KingPeter (Pete) Thomas KingKey GOP lawmaker says public oblivious to consequences of opioid crisis Cook Political Report moves 5 GOP-held seats towards Dems The Hill's Morning Report — Kavanaugh could be confirmed within days 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.