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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

August 2: GOP House Retirements May Be An Omen

With all the attention naturally focused on the 2020 presidential races–and secondarily the fight for the Senate–it’s worthwhile now and then to check in on House races, as I did this week at New York:

House Republicans have been plotting to retake control of the chamber they lost last year. As I noted earlier this year, flipping the House next year is not impossible but would defy recent precedents:

“[H]istory suggests it will be very difficult for Republicans to make the net gains of 19 seats necessary to flip the House, which hasn’t changed hands in a presidential election since Dwight D. Eisenhower’s landslide win in 1952. But on the other hand, there are 31 House Democrats in districts Trump carried in 2016 (and after 2018, just three Republicans in Clinton ’16 districts), so it would be wise to keep an eye on the House races.”

Obviously Trump would need to do very well at the presidential level to give his party’s House candidates the requisite lift. His perpetually mediocre job approval ratings are echoed in the congressional generic ballot (the typically predictive poll that indicates partisan House voting intentions), where Democrats currently have a 6.7 percent lead, according to the RealClearPolitics averages.

But there’s another factor that could hobble Republicans in their efforts to flip the House: retirements. Because incumbents on average run better than newbies or challengers, reducing the number of them will often reduce the potential for partisan gains. Additionally, members of Congress often anticipate a bad year before it materializes (much like animals sensing an approaching storm), so a wave of retirements is almost always a bad sign for the party experiencing it. In 2018 26 House Republicans headed for the exits (not counting those running for higher office), the fifth-largest total since 1974, which contributed to the Democrats’ big year. And now, as Reid Wilson reports, there are fears another wave of House GOP retirements is building:

“House Republicans plotting to win back their majority in Congress fear they are on the brink of a massive wave of retirements that could force them to play defense in a high-stakes presidential election year.

“Three House Republicans said last week they would not seek another term next year, catching party strategists off guard. Those announcements came earlier than in a typical election cycle, when members who are ready to hang up their voting cards usually wait until after the August recess or after the Christmas break.”

So far just four Republicans have announced an imminent retirement (not counting two who are running for higher office), but party officials have a bad feeling about what might happen very soon:

“Republican strategists say they are bracing for a new wave of exits after members check in with their families over the August recess. Two dozen Republicans won their reelection bids in 2018 by fewer than 5 percentage points; another 25 won by fewer than 10 points.

“’There are going to be a lot more [retirements] to come,’ said one consultant who works for House Republicans. ‘Between people finding themselves having to actually work hard for the first time in their long, lazy careers and members who came in in the majority and now hate life in the minority, it’s just getting started.’”

Some members hanging it all up, of course, come from safe districts that Republicans will undoubtedly keep, but one of last week’s retirees is probably more typical: Texas’s Pete Olson, who represents an increasingly marginal suburban district near Houston. Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman immediately labeled the race to succeed Olson as highly competitive:

“House Democrats got a boost on Thursday when Texas GOP Rep. Pete Olson announced he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2020. In 2018, Olson barely held off Democratic former foreign service officer Sri Preston Kulkarni 51 percent to 47 percent, and a competitive rematch was already brewing. In the second quarter of 2019, Kulkarni out-raised Olson $420,000 to $373,000. Now, this seat will move to the top of Democrats’ takeover target list.

“The rapidly growing southwest Houston suburbs are undergoing a rapid demographic shift: the 22nd CD, once held by Tom DeLay, is now just 40 percent white (down from 45 percent in 2010) and voted for President Trump by just 52 percent to 44 percent, a third of Mitt Romney’s 25 point margin in 2012. The district is 26 percent Hispanic, 19 percent Asian and 12 percent black, and 43 percent of adults hold college degrees, among the highest in the state.”

If there are a few more developments like this one, the GOP’s odds of grabbing the Speaker’s gavel for Kevin McCarthy will dwindle even more.

After I wrote this piece, Texas congressman Will Hurd, the only African-American Republican Member in the House, representing a very marginal district, announced his own retirement. It may or may not have been related to the president’s recent spasm of racist utterances. But it’s bad news for the GOP in any event.

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