AGAINST THE GRAIN

House GOP Fears Wave in 2018 as Money Woes Grow

The odds of Nancy Pelosi becoming speaker again are rising as Republican donors show frustration over the party’s stalled agenda on Capitol Hill.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Oct. 22, 2017, 8 a.m.

House Republicans are growing increasingly alarmed that some of their most vulnerable members aren’t doing the necessary legwork to protect themselves from an emerging Democratic tidal wave. In some of the biggest media markets, where blockbuster fundraising is a prerequisite for political survival—most notably in New York City, Los Angeles, and Houston—Republican lawmakers aren’t raising enough money to run aggressive campaigns against up-and-coming Democrats.

Of the 53 House Republicans facing competitive races, according to Cook Political Report ratings, a whopping 21 have been outraised by at least one Democratic opponent in the just-completed fundraising quarter. That’s a stunningly high number this early in the cycle, one that illustrates just how favorable the political environment is for House Democrats.

The third-quarter fundraising reports paint a gloomy picture for many Republicans. Rep. Steve Knight of California raised only $144,000 in the last three months, less than the total of two lesser-known Democratic challengers. Veteran Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey brought in only $154,000—just over one-third the amount of his leading Democratic rival, retired Navy helicopter pilot Mikie Sherrill. In the Houston area, Rep. John Culberson, who typically doesn’t face competitive races, raised only $172,000 in a Democratic-trending district that backed Hillary Clinton last year.

The list goes on: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, under scrutiny over his unseemly ties to Russia, was outraised by a highly touted challenger and has only $600,000 in the bank. Rep. Claudia Tenney of New York saw her leading opponent raise twice as much money she did; even her Republican predecessor, former Rep. Richard Hanna, donated to the Democratic challenger. Rep. Leonard Lance of New Jersey brought in less than $200,000 in the quarter and has less than a half-million in cash on hand in a district where advertising is prohibitively expensive.

“They’re not where we want them to be. People want to see legislative movement. Donors want something done; they want tax reform done. What will affect things is if there’s progress on the president’s agenda,” said one House Republican official.

Money doesn’t always translate to victory, but the sheer number of House Republicans struggling to adequately prepare for difficult reelection campaigns—combined with the historic amount brought in by little-known Democratic candidates—points to an ominous political environment ahead for Republicans. Just as Republican voters are disillusioned with the lack of legislative accomplishments despite holding majorities in both chambers of Congress, some GOP donors are withholding their checks to protest the inactivity as well.

In addition, weak fundraising totals in the year before an election often suggest that members are thinking about heading for the exits. One senior Republican House strategist warned that if Congress can’t pass tax reform into law, a wave of retirements will soon follow.

Just this week, veteran Rep. Pat Tiberi of Ohio announced he’s resigning to join a business roundtable back in his home state. Tiberi, who is an influential member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, is vacating a suburban seat around Columbus that could be competitive under the right circumstances. President Trump won 53 percent of the vote there in 2016, a slightly narrower percentage of the vote than Romney won in 2012.

Tiberi’s departure follows recent moves by other allies of Speaker Paul Ryan, many of whom represent competitive districts that Democrats plan to challenge. So far, 18 House Republicans have announced their retirements in this election cycle, the highest number at this stage since 2004, according to an analysis by Daily Kos. If the retirement pace continues, Democrats will find themselves with an easier pathway to winning back control of the House, since incumbency is one of the most powerful advantages Republicans hold.

The odds of a Democratic House takeover in 2018 have never looked greater this election cycle. One plugged-in House Democratic strategist, who has previously been circumspect about the party’s chances to win control of the lower chamber, put the chances of Nancy Pelosi again becoming speaker at a 7 (with 10 being the most likely). The strategist’s outlook is bolstered by a growing pile of empirical evidence, like eye-popping fundraising from the party’s top challengers, suggesting that next November is poised to be a wave election for the Democrats.

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