A collage of three retiring GOP congresspeople.

2018 elections

Seven GOP Congresspeople Are Retiring. Should Dems Feel Optimistic?

The opening of GOP seats are a huge opportunity for Dems—if only they didn’t have to battle gerrymandering, voter suppression, and a dotard in the Oval Office to get them.

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While many of us were in despair over last November’s presidential election results, there was a tiny silver lining. It’s this:

Every time one party gains control of the White House and both houses of Congress, it puts major stress on any ideological fault lines.

It never fails. And seven months in, we see the widening cracks. The most recent sign was the announcement that Rep. Charlie Dent, an outspoken and telegenic relatively moderate Republican from Pennsylvania, is not running for reelection in 2018. (Reps. Dave Trott of Michigan and Dave Reichert of Washington also announced retirement from swing seats under challenge by Democrats. Both Reichert’s and Dent’s retirements were predicted on the DCCC Retirement Watch List released in May.)

Dent told Buzzfeed there was “a lot of polarization around here that leads to paralysis.”

Which might explain why two more Republican members recently announced plans to retire, bringing the number of House retirees to seven—though, it’s still below the average 22 members who walk away. But it’s interesting that they’re leaving right now, when the Republican Party is, at least theoretically, in full control.

The conservative Freedom Caucus has something to do with it. Their hard-nosed, slash-and-burn tactics advanced their agenda as a minority faction within a minority party (and make no mistake, the tea party is less popular than ever), but extreme tactics like threatening to shut down the government don’t wear well as a governing strategy.

The president didn’t help matters by appointing extreme conservatives to many cabinet positions, validating their tactics and offering them a legitimacy they have not otherwise had. It adds a level of stress some of the more pragmatic members would rather not have.

Dent told Buzzfeed, “There’s been just too much disorder, instability, and chaos. And dysfunction. I’ve often said, you know, we figured out a way to take the fun out of dysfunction … There’s no fun in the dysfunction anymore.”

Witness the ongoing attempts to rip affordable health coverage from vulnerable voters. Recent polling shows only 12 percent of Americans want Obamacare repealed, yet still, the Republican leadership and the Trump administration persist.

A 1999 study also found that Congress members are more likely to retire when they face a serious fight.

We know the Democratic opposition is gathering momentum. Indivisible chapters are now mobilized in every state and in hundreds of towns, demanding town hall meetings and helping beat back the attempts to repeal Obamacare. They are also organizing voters in local races—this year, Democrats won six GOP-held seats in state and congressional elections.

Republicans haven’t won any Democratic seats. And then there’s Donald Trump, the man in the Oval Office.

One of the reasons Republicans are so divided is that the titular head of their party doesn’t really care about leading on policy, only about getting some wins on the scoreboard.

Josh Holmes, a GOP consultant and former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, told the Washington Post there are “concerns about whether your party is really with you.”

We hear lots of rumbling from Republican circles about how they wish the president “showed leadership” on his preferred policies. By that, the electeds mean they don’t want to fight it out with their own party factions about the granular details of legislation. (You’ll recall similar complaints from Democrats over Obama’s hands-off position on the Affordable Care Act.)

In the alleged service of his inflated campaign promises (“Cheaper! Better! Beautiful insurance!”), Trump pushed Republicans yet again into the ultimately no-win position of repealing Obamacare. He doesn’t care about details—although it’s supposed to be better and cheaper than the ACA—with no regular process, no hearings, no public input. And if watching Republican senators tie themselves in knots trying to defend the Graham-Cassidy bill is anywhere as uncomfortable as it looks, we can only imagine how painful it was for them.

Sen. John McCain appeared to have come to their rescue on Friday, when he released a statement that he “cannot in good conscience” vote for something that upends the regular order of the Senate. But over the weekend, the bill’s authors Sens. Graham and Cassidy tinkered with it in a last-ditch effort to buy the votes of the holdouts, Sens. Collins (R-Maine) and Murkowski (R-Alaska), offering their states huge increases in federal funding. If Collins and Murkowski stick with their convictions, and help kill the bill, that solves one of the Republicans’ political problems, but leaves them with another one: They needed that ACA funding to pay for their tax cuts. So now what?

Here’s another problem in an election cycle. Voters are very, very angry they were forced three different times to plead with their elected officials not to kill them. That resentment will still be there next year, even in red states. And if that’s not bad enough, big donors are threatening to fund primary challenges for anyone who doesn’t deliver on Obamacare repeal and tax cuts.

Why, going to work as a lobbyist with a large expense account looks positively restful by comparison.

So we can expect the numbers of GOP retirees to grow—especially if there are indictments in the Russian investigation. Because the thought of voting to impeach a Republican president is probably the last thing in the world GOP House members want to think about.

So What Does It All Mean For the Democrats?

Here’s the bottom line: The latest Republican retirements, while not yet a trend, do leave three open seats in areas vulnerable to Democratic pickup. Counting Republicans who are already leaving to run for senator or governor, Democrats will have a total of 17 empty Republican House seats to challenge.

Republicans also have an unpopular president, whose approval rating still hovers somewhere around 40 percent. That’s one of the best predictors of victory, because this is when both parties recruit candidates for those open seats, and the best candidates are more likely to run if the wind is at their back.

Back in July, only nine Democrats were listed with 26 Republicans in Larry Sabato’s list of vulnerable contests. If that number remains overwhelmingly Republican, that’s another potential indicator of a wave.

Democrats also have this newly-energized grassroots opposition, and barring any major surprises (nuclear war, anyone?), they’re likely to make significant progress. 

Will 2018 be a wave year? The ingredients are there. Think of the recent major hurricanes, where there was flooding in places we’d never seen. Voters are like water. If a political wave develops, Democrats will make some surprising races competitive.

Maybe the best sign of all is when the wing-nutty site Daily Caller explains just how impossible it is for Democrats to take control. It’s not impossible. It won’t be easy—Democrats face serious structural challenges; gerrymandering and voter suppression have locked in Republican majorities all over the country.

But here’s the secret sauce: The biggest advantage Republicans typically have is traditional Democratic mid-term apathy—in other words, low turnout. In a year when voters will be paying very close attention, and groups like Indivisible are beating the bushes to turn out the vote, opposition to Trump will be activated.

If it’s a wave year,  Democrats will have coattails into the state elections, which means this time, Democrats will control the congressional redistricting.

It’s not a slam dunk, but Democrats are cautiously optimistic—assuming Russians don’t hack the voting machines, of course.


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