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.”