Dems Flex Muscles on GOP Turf

With Trump as a millstone, Republicans are worrying about retirements and recruitment in both chambers.

Rep. Fred Upton
AP Photo/Cliff Owen
May 14, 2017, 6 a.m.

Des­pite hold­ing all the av­en­ues of power in Wash­ing­ton, it’s not a happy time to be a Re­pub­lic­an of­fice­hold­er. Pres­id­ent Trump’s sus­pi­ciously timed fir­ing of FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey has all but guar­an­teed a me­dia and polit­ic­al firestorm that will last in­def­in­itely, and pre­vent le­gis­la­tion from get­ting through Con­gress. It also threatens to knock down Trump’s already-weak job-ap­prov­al rat­ings, mak­ing vul­ner­able Re­pub­lic­ans even more nervous about their reelec­tion pro­spects.

If the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment turns so omin­ous that Re­pub­lic­ans de­cide not to stick around, it will be a warn­ing sign of a sig­ni­fic­ant wave elec­tion. Two up­com­ing spe­cial elec­tions in Geor­gia and Montana will of­fer an early test of the pub­lic’s polit­ic­al mood; both are highly com­pet­it­ive des­pite be­ing con­tested on Re­pub­lic­an turf. But in the com­ing months, Re­pub­lic­an of­fice­hold­ers and po­ten­tial re­cruits will also be read­ing the tea leaves to de­cide wheth­er to run in 2018. Their de­cisions will go a long way in set­ting the stage for the midterms.

Fol­low the two Rs: re­tire­ments and re­cruit­ing. On the House side, will a slew of Re­pub­lic­ans re­tire in­stead of run­ning the risk of los­ing power? Already, Flor­ida’s Rep. Ileana Ros-Le­htin­en, rep­res­ent­ing the most Demo­crat­ic House seat held by a Re­pub­lic­an, an­nounced she’s not run­ning for a 15th full term. If any oth­er battle-tested Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­ent­ing swing dis­tricts fol­low suit, it makes the Demo­crat­ic path to the ma­jor­ity easi­er. Giv­en the rough en­vir­on­ment shap­ing up for Re­pub­lic­ans, open seats in swing ter­rit­ory are ripe for the pick­ing.

Two mem­bers are worth watch­ing closely: In Michigan, Rep. Fred Up­ton, who en­gin­eered the com­prom­ise that al­lowed Trump’s health care bill to pass through the House, is rumored as a pos­sible re­tir­ee. If he leaves without pur­su­ing a Sen­ate cam­paign, it’s clear that Michigan’s polit­ics will be less fa­vor­able to Re­pub­lic­ans than last year. And in Cali­for­nia, Rep. Dana Rohra­bach­er, whose Or­ange County seat used to be in the cen­ter of the state’s con­ser­vat­ive heart­land, saw his dis­trict be­come Clin­ton ter­rit­ory last year. His his­tory of pro-Rus­sia sen­ti­ments makes him a par­tic­u­larly in­vit­ing tar­get, and his lean bank ac­count sug­gests that he’s not pre­par­ing for a 16th term.

So far, only six House Re­pub­lic­ans have an­nounced their re­tire­ments—be­low the typ­ic­al churn in a bad polit­ic­al year. But if a flurry of mem­bers head for the exits in the next couple of months, the odds of a Demo­crat­ic wave will in­crease.

On the flip side, the fa­vor­able polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment is draw­ing a strong con­tin­gent of Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates in­to races in typ­ic­ally con­ser­vat­ive ter­rit­ory. A former Baylor foot­ball star (Colin Allred) and a top State De­part­ment of­fi­cial (Ed Mei­er) have an­nounced cam­paigns against long­time Rep. Pete Ses­sions in Texas. In Illinois, Ir­aq war vet­er­an Maura Sul­li­van is mulling a run against Rep. Peter Roskam, who hasn’t faced a tough race in years. Politico’s Marc Cap­uto re­por­ted that a fe­male Army ma­jor who worked on coun­terter­ror­ism ef­forts (Corinna Robin­son) is plan­ning a run against fresh­man Rep. Bri­an Mast in a south Flor­ida dis­trict that com­fort­ably backed Trump.

These are the type of can­did­ates whose bio­graph­ies should al­low them to over­come the lib­er­al bag­gage of the na­tion­al party. House Demo­crats failed in 2016 be­cause they didn’t even try to re­cruit in many of these dis­tricts where Hil­lary Clin­ton made in­roads; now they are emer­ging or­gan­ic­ally be­cause of Trump’s troubles.

The cal­cu­la­tions for Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell are dif­fer­ent. Be­ne­fit­ing from a his­tor­ic­ally fa­vor­able map, Mc­Con­nell is ex­per­i­en­cing mixed re­cruit­ing res­ults.

In Mis­souri, Rep. Ann Wag­n­er is plan­ning to enter the Sen­ate race in Ju­ly, ac­cord­ing to two sources fa­mil­i­ar with her plans, and has seen private polling show­ing her already lead­ing Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill. Of­fi­cials from both parties agree that Mc­Caskill is the most vul­ner­able Demo­crat up for reelec­tion. Re­pub­lic­ans also scored a re­cruit­ing vic­tory when Rep. Evan Jen­kins of West Vir­gin­ia an­nounced his cam­paign against Sen. Joe Manchin, though his vote on health care will be used against him by Demo­crats. And Flor­ida Gov. Rick Scott is quietly pre­par­ing for a show­down against Sen. Bill Nel­son; he dined with D.C. re­port­ers this week to brand him­self as a Re­pub­lic­an re­former. Be­cause of his im­mense per­son­al wealth, he can af­ford to wait longer to pre­pare for a bruis­ing cam­paign.

But giv­en the nu­mer­ous op­por­tun­it­ies—Demo­crats are de­fend­ing 10 seats in states that Trump won—the lack of com­par­able re­cruit­ing is glar­ingly slow. Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials are already fret­ting about Ohio Treas­urer Josh Man­del’s un­der­whelm­ing cam­paign against Sen. Sher­rod Brown, which he launched in Decem­ber. And few top can­did­ates have stepped up in the Rust Belt states that swung to Trump in the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

“The en­vir­on­ment is really bad for Re­pub­lic­ans right now, and that will weigh heav­ily for any­one con­sid­er­ing any race,” said one seni­or Re­pub­lic­an strategist. “The one thing that Re­pub­lic­ans can con­trol is the qual­ity of their can­did­ates and qual­ity of cam­paigns be­ing run. Right now, neither are ad­equate.”

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