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Democrats have open door amid wave of Republican retirements

Democrats have open door amid wave of Republican retirements
© Greg Nash

The recent and ongoing mass exodus of Republican lawmakers from Congress ahead of the 2018 midterm elections has given Democrats a critical opening to take back key districts. In the past several months, Republicans have been departing Capitol Hill in droves, with more than 30 members announcing their retirement, run for another office, or already resigned. That’s more than double the number of Democratic exits in the same time period.

The outgoing range from long-serving senior Republican leadership like Rep. John DuncanJohn James DuncanLive coverage: Social media execs face grilling on Capitol Hill Governor's race grabs spotlight in Tennessee primaries Election Countdown: Trump jumps into Ohio special election fight | What to watch in Tennessee primaries | Koch network freezes out Republicans who crossed them | Dead heat in Texas, Nevada Senate races | How celebs are getting into the midterms MORE of Tennessee and Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchGOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia Congress should work with Trump and not 'cowboy' on Saudi Arabia, says GOP senator US to open trade talks with Japan, EU, UK MORE of Utah, to newcomers like Rep. 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 of Michigan, and most recently to Rep. Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaMidterms in 2018 become most expensive in history Dems target small cluster of states in battle for House Painting of Trump with past GOP presidents hung up in White House MORE of California. So why are Republicans vacating their seats at a significantly faster rate than any other Congress in recent memory?

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Some Republican lawmakers have cited a desire to return to the private sector and spend more time with family. Others have announced gubernatorial bids or were forced out by scandal. One vague non-answer common among the departees emphasized that it was simply time to serve elsewhere. Other, however, have explicitly attributed the wave of retirements to an increasingly divisive and polarized political environment that has proliferated under the Trump presidency.

When Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeMnuchin pulls out of Saudi conference The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Health care a top policy message in fall campaigns On The Money: Treasury official charged with leaking info on ex-Trump advisers | Trump to seek 5 percent budget cut from Cabinet members | Mnuchin to decide by Thursday on attending Saudi conference MORE of Arizona announced his exit in October, he stated his purpose as “freeing myself of the political consideration that consumed far too much bandwidth,” and criticized President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE as “dangerous to our democracy.” Rep. 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 of Pennsylvania, who announced his decision in September, cited “increased polarization and ideological rigidity.”

As many in the media have correctly pointed out, a slew of these departures are from districts that narrowly carried the vote like Rep. 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 of New Jersey’s 2nd or Rep. Trott of Michigan’s 11th. They are also largely congregated on the East and West coasts in states like Washington and California, as well as Virginia and New Jersey.

These are the districts most vulnerable to repossession by Democrats, where the tightest races will be fought and the toughest questions asked of its Republican incumbents. These strategic vacancies represent an opportunity for Democratic lawmakers that, if properly leveraged, could potentially flip the House in their favor. Democrats need to secure just 24 seats to retake the majority from the Republicans-controlled House.

According to the Real Clear Politics average, Democrats now have an 11-point advantage in the generic ballot. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted earlier this month has that lead at 17 points. The poll, which asks voters whether they will vote Democratic or Republican for Congress, is historically a credible predictor of the House popular vote.

So how do Democrats translate this opening into a solid edge? Well, to begin with, they need an agenda beyond “resist Trump,” and a compelling message to convey it to the American people. Since its stunning 2016 defeat, the Democratic Party has expressed its desire to tap into the sentiments that won Donald Trump the presidential election.

First, however, Democrats must prove they value the concerns of the American people and explain how these issues will be resolved in language that resonates with ordinary citizens. Though the Democrats had every opportunity in 2017 to redefine their party and its message, intra-party bickering and indecision prevented progress.

Now is the time to building that agenda. In doing so, the Democratic Party must eschew the tendency to dissolve into an ideological debate that only pushes the centrist and progressive wings further into their respective corners in favor of a more populist appeal. Instead, they must put forward a set of pro-growth and inclusive economic policies. According to a January poll by the New York Times, 42 percent of Americans believe the national economy is better than it was a year ago.

Democrats should utilize this momentum and optimism to address several key issues. Increased infrastructure spending, affordable higher education and greater wage earnings are all traditional Democratic values that will resonate with American voters. Only once the Democratic Party sets a meaningful agenda can they begin to craft it into a compelling message that will resonate with the American people. They have shown they can stand up to Trump. Now they must prove they stand for something.

Douglas E. Schoen (@DouglasESchoen) served as a pollster for President Clinton. A longtime political consultant, he is also a Fox News contributor and the author of 11 books, including “Putin’s Master Plan: To Destroy Europe, Divide NATO, and Restore Russian Power and Global Influence.”