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.
What We're Following See More »
The House Intelligence Committee voted to release the November 14 testimony of Glenn Simpson, the man at Fusion GPS who oversaw the creation of the now infamous Trump-Russia dossier. Simpson's testimony includes a number of startling claims, including that Russia infiltrated conservative political groups prior to the election, and that Trump had "long time associations" with the Italian Mafia," and that he "gradually during the nineties became associated with Russian mafia figures." Simpson also testified that Trump called off a post-election meeting with Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank and a longtime member of the NRA, currently under investigation by the FBI for money laundering. Simpson said that the discoveries were so alarming that he felt compelled to go to the authorities. The full text of the transcript can be read here.
House Speaker Paul Ryan says he has the votes to pass a short-term spending bill tonight, but "Senate Democrats said they're confident they have the votes to block the stop-gap spending bill that the House is taking up, according to two Democratic senators and a senior party aide. And top Senate Republicans are openly worried about the situation as they struggle to keep their own members in the fold."
The bipartisan legislation, known as the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act, means taxpayers will "no longer foot the bill" for sexual harassment settlements involving members of Congress." The legislation "would require members to pay such settlements themselves." It also reforms the "cumbersome and degrading" complaint process by giving victims "more rights and resources," and by simplifying and clarifying the complaint process. The legislation is the first major transformation of the sexual harassment complaint system since it was created in 1995.
"The FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency." Investigators have focused on Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank "who is known for his close relationships with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the NRA." The solicitation or use of foreign funds is illegal in U.S. elections under the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) by either lobbying groups or political campaigns. The NRA reported spending a record $55 million on the 2016 elections.