Republican exodus from Congress throws wrench in election strategy

Republican exodus from Congress throws wrench in election strategy
© Greg Nash

Two districts in North Carolina held special elections to fill vacant seats this week. The 3rd district, which is a solidly Republican rural community, performed as expected with Republican candidate Greg Murphy winning more than 60 percent of the vote. The 9th district was the focus of millions of dollars of investment from both parties. A largely suburban district, it is just the sort of area that Democrats have targeted in the Trump era, with college educated, middle class, and relatively moderate voters. Republican Dan Bishop narrowly won, thanks to the rural turnout that countered a continued suburban shift to Democratic candidates. However, such a lukewarm performance in a usually safe Republican district stands as a concerning sign for the party ahead of 2020.

Pair these results with the 13 House Republicans who have announced their retirements, and we see the burgeoning signs of another difficult House cycle for the party. While this total number is fairly typical, an average of 13 Republican representatives have retired each cycle since 1990, there are still 14 months until the 2020 election. If this trend continues at the current pace, 2020 could see a record number of retirements for the party. This could spell trouble for the chances of Republicans taking back the House, especially during a presidential election year, when Democratic turnout is usually strongest. 

The two major parties are in very different places right now. While it may appear that both are very fractious and fragile, one key political factor complicates things, which is President TrumpDonald John TrumpThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Judd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem MORE. For Democrats, he is a unifying force as a common adversary. Republicans in Washington, on the other hand, are split over the president and his policies. Many speculate that Congressman Will Hurd, perhaps the most high profile retirement of the cycle so far, abandoned his seat because he could not stomach the views of the president on immigration. As the only African American Republican in the House and a representative from a border district in Texas, this dissatisfaction may be a harbinger of more general disquiet outside of the core Trump base. Susan Brooks and Rob Woodall are also members in vulnerable Republican bastions who are retiring, as the path to reelection becomes more arduous in their suburban districts.

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Without the incumbency advantage in a presidential cycle, seats that were vulnerable before become even more precarious for Republicans, and seats that were slightly safer may be targeted by Democratic campaign operatives. It also does not help Republicans that the person at the top of the ticket has had a historically low approval rating since he entered office, a number that has not noticeably improved since early 2017. That said, the chances of Republicans in the House largely ride on the coattails of Trump in 2020. While voters in the past were inclined to choose from both parties up and down the ballot, voters today are now increasingly turning to straight ticket voting as politics becomes more nationalized. If the economy continues to succeed, Trump may be able to ride the wave to reelection. If not, House Republicans may be in trouble.

Republicans may be tempted to dismiss the retirements as unimportant to their prospects, but looking to the historical record, it would be a terrible mistake to do so. In the past 30 years, there have been three cases in which landmark numbers of representatives have retired in one cycle, and all of these cycles produced a political wave. In 1994 under President Clinton, 20 House Democrats abandoned ship without running for higher office, sensing a shift in the winds. That year, Republicans led by Newt Gingrich made a historic gain of 54 seats in the “Republican Revolution.”

In 2008, Republicans found the tables turned from their success in 1994. Although Democrats had already made massive gains in 2006, including reclaiming the House, 21 Republicans retired before the next election. Riding the coattails of President Obama, Democrats gained 21 additional seats and widened their majority to a whopping 78 seats. Republicans took back control in the Tea Party wave of 2010, and held the chamber for eight years. More recently, 23 Republican representatives retired leading up to the 2018 midterm election. That November, Democrats won 41 seats in the House and handed the gavel back to Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiImpeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Klobuchar: 'I have seen no reason why' Hunter Biden would need to testify Johnson dismisses testimony from White House officials contradicting Trump as 'just their impression' MORE.

History demonstrates that mass retirements can portend political disaster, especially in the House. If this trend continues, particularly in suburban districts, they could presage a smaller and more rural Republican caucus that cedes the suburban swing seats that decide the House majority. If Trump outperforms polling as he did in 2016, he may be able to buoy the chances of his colleagues in the House during his reelection campaign, but if 2020 repeats 2018 as a referendum on Trump, Republicans could face an even more resurgent Democratic majority two years from now.

Christopher Condon is a policy analyst at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. You can find him on Twitter @LibertasAeterna.