Democrats are so eager for an anti-Republican wave election next year that Chuck Schumer can smell it.
Tuesday’s Democratic gains in Virginia and New Jersey elections have buoyed the Senate minority leader and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). They told reporters this week they are having flashbacks to 2005, the year before the last time Democrats enjoyed large gains in congressional elections.
The party knocked Republicans out of the majority in both houses of Congress in 2006, picking up 31 House seats and six in the Senate.
“The results last night smell exactly the same way,” Schumer said Wednesday. “Our Republican friends better look out.”
Added Pelosi: “The door is certainly open to us. We get the fresh recruits, and they get the retirements.”
Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) made a bold prediction on CNN after the election.
“I still say that when 2019 comes, the Democrats will be in charge of the House of Representatives. The same thing is happening … The energy is there,” he said. “The pent-up frustration with the Trump administration is there. All the same ingredients we saw play out in Virginia, from having good candidates, from fielding good candidates across the board in all sorts of different districts, will play out in 2018.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) on Thursday became the 23rd Republican congressman to announce he will not seek re-election.
“There’s a string of them out there,” said University of Richmond political science professor Daniel Palazzolo. “They’re probably going to add up.”
With Election Day still a year away, Republicans already face nearly as many open seats as they had to defend last year. Political experts note that wave elections often occur when large numbers of incumbents from the opposing party step aside.
“Oftentimes, incumbents decide to retire when it looks like prospects for re-election look to be difficult and painful,” said Jesse Richman, a political science professor at Old Dominion University.
A Potential ‘Self-Fulfilling Prophecy’
Eric Ostermeier, a political science researcher at the University of Minnesota and founder of Smart Politics, said congressional retirements can both serve as an early-warning signal and help kick off a wave by encouraging the opposition.
“It can become a self-fulfilling prophesy of sorts,” he said.
[lz_table title=”Retiring Republicans” source=””]Republican representatives not seeking re-election in 2018
|Retiring from politics
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.),-19.6%
Dave Reichert (R-Wash.),-3%
Dave Trott (R-Mich.),4.4%
Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.),4.6%
Charlie Dent (R-Pa.),7.6%
Ted Poe (R-Texas),9.3%
Lamar Smith (R-Texas),10%
Sam Johnson (R-Texas),14.2%
Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.),18.4%
Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.),24.8%
Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas),28.4%
Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.)**,28.7%
John Duncan (R-Tenn.),35.4%
|Running for Senate
Lou Barletta (R-Pa.),23.8%
Todd Rokita (R-Ind.),34.1%
Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.),39.3%
Luke Messer (R-Ind.),40.3%
Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.),49.2%
|Running for Governor
Steve Pearce (R-N.M.),10.2%
Kristi Noem (R-S.D.),29.2%
James Renacci (R-Ohio),16.6%
Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho),38.3%
Diane Black (R-Tenn.),48.9%
*Donald Trump’s margin of victory/defeat
**Nominated to be NASA administrator
More than half of 23 retiring incumbents are leaving politics altogether, while 10 are seeking higher office. Meanwhile, just 10 Democrats have announced they will not seek re-election to their House seats; all but two of them are seeking higher office.
Most of the Republicans who have announced their retirements so far represent safe Republican districts that President Donald Trump won by double digits in 2016. A few, however, will be prime Democratic pickup opportunities. Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), for instance, represents a district in South Florida that Democrat Hillary Clinton won by nearly 20 percentage points. Clinton also won the district represented by Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.).
In addition, Trump won by fewer than 10 points in four districts represented by retiring incumbents — Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania; Dave Trott of Michigan; Ted Poe of Texas, and Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey. Trump won the district of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) by 10 points exactly.
Ostermeier said even a district that is safe with a popular incumbent can be flipped if it becomes and open race — particularly when it is part of a strong partisan tide. He pointed to former Rep. David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat who had no trouble holding his seat for more than four decades but saw a Republican succeed him when he chose not to run for re-election in 2010.
Some conservative activists shrugged off the retirements.
“Most of these seem to be the swamp self-draining itself,” said Chuck Muth, president of Las Vegas-based Citizens Outreach Foundation. “I don’t think there’s going to be a national wave in 2018.”
History shows that the president’s party usually loses congressional seats in his first midterm election. The losses tend to be especially pronounced when the president’s approval rating just before the election is under 40 percent, as Trump’s now is.
But Muth said Republicans will be making a mistake if they distance themselves from Trump while still trying to appeal to his supporters. He said Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial nominee, Ed Gillespie, tried that and was met with abject failure. He said the Trump era has upended long-held Establishment conventional wisdom — that the party should favor moderate candidates on the thinking that conservative voters will have nowhere else to go in the general election.
“That doesn’t work with Trump supporters,” he said. “They’re not playing this strategically. For them, it’s all or nothing.”
The Term-Limits Factor
Experts said a number of factors have contributed to rising Republican retirements.
Richman, the Old Dominion professor, noted that the large class of Republican freshmen who came in in the 2010 wave had an unusually high number of people who were older and had had long business careers prior to entering politics.
“They’re not always interested in staying for decades the way people who arrive in their 40s might be.”
“They’re not always interested in staying for decades the way people who arrive in their 40s might be,” he said.
Palazzolo, the Richmond professor, pointed to another factor pushing senior lawmakers into retirement.
“Their chairmanships are up,” he said, referring to a rule, first adopted under then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995, limiting lawmakers to three terms in charge of committees.
That is the case with Goodlatte, who must give up the gavel of the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who could not keep his chairmanship of the Financial Services Committee.
Richman said some factors potentially limit how large a wave 2018 could be. He said most representatives have districts that are far more partisan than the state legislative districts that Democrats flipped on Tuesday.
“The results in Virginia don’t really give them much to worry about,” he said.
Some analysts said there is a danger for Democrats even if they did succeed in taking over the House. Commentator David Gergen, a vociferous Trump critic, said on CNN that the president could make a comeback in 2020.
“Trumpism with Trump, when he’s on the ticket, he’s still dangerous,” he said.
And Ostermeier, of the University of Minnesota, said Democrats will be making a mistake if they demand left-wing ideological purity from candidates in swing districts.
“If the Democrats do that, their opportunity is going to be pretty short-lived,” he said.