Open Seats a Growing Problem for GOP

Republicans worry a gridlocked Congress and challenging climate might push even more swing-district members toward retirement.

Rep. David Trott, then a congressional candidate, stands next to his wife, Kappy, during an interview at his election-night party in Troy, Mich. on Aug. 5, 2014. Trott said Monday that he will not seek reelection for the 11th District seat in Michigan.
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
Ally Mutnick
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Ally Mutnick
Sept. 11, 2017, 8 p.m.

A rapid-fire succession of Republican retirements has peppered the House battleground even before the off-year summer ends.

Three announcements in the past five days stoked the nagging fear among some Republicans that dysfunction in Washington wouldn’t just create an inhospitable political climate filled with irate constituents and well-funded challengers, but also deprive them of the critical advantage that incumbency offers in vulnerable districts.

In interviews, Republican strategists and former National Republican Congressional Committee chairs said it is far too soon to panic, but they urged the NRCC and House leadership to work diligently to retain disillusioned members—particularly those in swing seats—and notch legislative achievements on which they can run.

“This is a hard job. It is not as much fun as it has been,” said Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, a former two-term NRCC chair who has met with members of the conference to dissuade them from leaving. “We’ve got to find better ways to empower people where they feel like this is worth their time.”

Still, Sessions said, “the reality is some members are saying that they are going to leave,” and some of them will vacate competitive districts.

It happened again Monday when Rep. Dave Trott of Michigan followed departing fellow Republicans Dave Reichert of Washington and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who announced their departures one day apart last week. And four months earlier, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami institution and the Republican who holds the most Democratic-leaning seat, revealed her plans to retire.

Democrats insist that they were already planning to compete for these seats, but they are also jubilant at the prospect of running against candidates who lack the incumbents’ personal popularity.

Each of the recent retirees would have been formidable even in potentially hostile conditions, particularly Dent, one of the most prominent congressional moderates, and Reichert, a former sheriff who ended a serial killer’s two-decade-long reign of terror in the Seattle area.

In a statement, Trott cited a desire to return to the private sector after just two terms in office. Reichert and Dent similarly downplayed the role of politics in their decisions, but acknowledged in interviews that their seats could be difficult for Republicans to hold without them. Describing their departures as personal, they declined to speculate on whether more moderates would jump ship, but Reichert said colleagues had expressed admiration at his choice.

“I think that most members sort of hope that they are able to make the same courageous decision, I guess, rather than go out and lose,” Reichert said. “I’d rather go out on my own terms, too.”

Reichert’s district, which has backed Democratic presidential candidates since it was redrawn, will be the heaviest lift for Republicans among the three. The congressman himself described five of the eight Democrats who have filed for his district as “top-tier.”

Democrats claim some credit for the retirements, pointing to grassroots activism that has fueled frequent protests, heated district events, and, most importantly, a flood of declared challengers, many of whom have already amassed staggering war chests. In Trott’s case, a top Democratic challenger, former Obama administration official Haley Stevens, had matched him in cash on hand by the end of July.

But GOP strategists said internal factors also posed a substantial risk, including a stalled legislative agenda, a fraught relationship with the White House, and internecine wars between the conservative and establishment wings.

“Make no mistake about it. The caution light is on,” said former Rep. Thomas Reynolds of New York, who chaired the NRCC in 2006 when Democrats won the House.

“There’s some frustration out there, and frustration leads to people self-reflecting: ‘Do I want to continue this or is there something else I want to do?’” he said, recalling conversations he had with current members over the summer.

Publicly, House leadership is dismissing any suggestion that political factors are affecting members’ retirements.

“It’s not about the current climate,” NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers said Friday in a brief interview. “We are going to see more retirements because right now we are so below the historic average of retirements,” he said, noting that Reichert and Dent brought the total to seven, far less than the typical two dozen who depart each cycle.

Sources close to House leadership said there has been no increased effort to dissuade swing-seat members from retiring beyond the normal conversations that happen each cycle, but noted that Speaker Paul Ryan makes an effort to stay in constant contact with members.

Reichert said the NRCC and House leadership urged him to reconsider his decision to leave.

“They probably will ask that of everyone,” he said. “But it was somewhat flattering to know that they needed me.”

Republicans were quick to highlight the open seats that Democrats will have to defend. Rep. Jacky Rosen’s Nevada Senate campaign and Rep. Tim Walz’s Minnesota governor bid left prime opportunities for the GOP in districts that Donald Trump carried.

The ability to capitalize on open seats, including those held by members seeking higher office, has been a critical component of recent paths to the majority for both parties. Democrats won nine GOP-held open seats when they took back the House in 2006, and Republicans flipped 14 in 2010, according to Vital Statistics on Congress data.

“The greatest risk for Republicans are open seats in swing districts,” said former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who led the House GOP campaign arm from 1998 to 2002.

For their part, Democrats are already pouncing on retirement announcements. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made recruitment calls last week for Dent’s district, said Rep. Denny Heck of Washington, the committee’s recruitment chair. There’s already a crowded Democratic primary field for Reichert’s seat, but the DCCC found more interest last week from potential candidates who were previously deterred by an incumbent.

Past GOP campaign chiefs said wavering members can be convinced to stay with some effort. During his tenure, Reynolds said he carried a potential retirement list and found some success in retaining incumbents.

Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the NRCC chair in the 2008 cycle, remembered talking Rep. Elton Gallegly out of abandoning his Ventura-based swing district by reminding him of the other open seats he was already defending.

“He said, ‘Tom, do you know how many times I’ve gotten on that plane from California?’” Cole said, recalling their conversation. “He said over 1,700 times, and I said, ‘Elton, all I’m asking you to do is get to 2,000 or so.’”

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