Two of the most politically skilled, pragmatic House Republicans abruptly announced their retirements this week, panicking party leaders who fear an exodus of the GOP’s top legislative talent. The political implications of their decisions are even greater, opening up seats that could easily flip to the Democrats next November.
The decisions to step down by Reps. Dave Reichert of Washington and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania expanded an already-growing map of vulnerable GOP seats next year. Neither seat was on The Cook Political Report’s list of most competitive races, given the incumbents’ impressive track records back home. Dent’s retirement turned his seat from a near-Republican lock to one that “will be in the thick of the battle for control of the House,” as The Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman wrote. With Reichert’s departure, his district shifted from solidly Republican to pure toss-up. Such drastic shifts don’t happen often.
Reichert is one of the few House Republicans who won a district that John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton all carried, routinely running well ahead of his party’s presidential nominees. Dent, one of the few remaining moderates left in Congress, survived in a swing district over the past decade without breaking much of a sweat. They join Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida as retirements that singlehandedly change the political dynamic in their districts.
President Trump’s scattershot approach to governing—not to mention his historically low approval ratings—has driven these rank-and-file Republicans to depart. In a statement announcing his decision, Dent referred himself as part of the “governing wing” in Washington and took a swipe at “outside influences that profit from increased polarization.” One of Reichert’s last comments before retiring was decrying Trump’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals decision as “not in the American DNA.” Since retiring, Ros-Lehtinen has loudly slammed President Trump for his record on gay rights, race relations, and treatment of immigrants.
Adding fuel to the fire was Trump’s decision this week to side with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on a legislative deal to raise the debt ceiling for just three months (with funding relief for Hurricane Harvey), undercutting his Republican allies in Congress. With Democratic intensity to vote already at sky-high levels, Republicans fret that such moves will only risk dampening GOP enthusiasm further in next year’s midterms.
“Trump is fracturing the party to the point where the risk of wholesale retirements and resignations will be high from mainstream lawmakers who came to Washington to do business,” said one senior GOP strategist. “The people who got into public service because they had a successful life, wanted to have rational conversations with rational people on a regular basis, and are now finding the idea of coddling activists around Trump’s daily Twitter habits not very appealing.”
Already, Republicans are bracing for additional pivotal retirements. The GOP watch list includes two swing-district members from Michigan: Reps. Fred Upton, the former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Dave Trott, a junior lawmaker from suburban Detroit. Trump carried both their districts, but these R+4 seats (according to the Cook Report’s Political Voting Index) would be vulnerable in a Democratic wave.
With every Republican retirement from a competitive district, the GOP math of holding its House majority becomes increasingly difficult. Retirements both serve as a signal that the political environment is bad, while also opening up opportunities for the opposition that hadn’t existed before. Name-brand members of Congress can win under tough circumstances, but it’s exceptionally difficult for lesser-known recruits—even the most talented among them—to run against punishing political headwinds.
But the issue of whether Republicans can maintain power in 2018 feels secondary to the more consequential long-term development—that the ideological disposition of elected Republicans is changing before our very eyes. Most of the Republicans who are leaving politics feel like throwbacks to a bygone era—more serious about governing than showboating. Meanwhile, the next generation of Republican candidates are more likely to be running in the image of Trump—substance-free, needlessly confrontational, and playing to a hardcore base. When Trump loyalists characterize House Speaker Paul Ryan as a squishy RINO, it’s clear that antiestablishment forces care more for revolutionary zeal than party affiliation.
It’s no secret why Republican leaders have been working tirelessly for years to prevent such candidates from emerging in primaries. But with a president egging on nihilistic elements, it’s becoming a thankless undertaking. If the pace of congressional retirements accelerates, it’s not just the House majority that will be at risk. It’s the future of the Republican Party.