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The biggest threat to the GOP majority no one’s talking about

In the past six midterm elections, the president’s party has not retained a single open seat he failed to carry two years prior. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Elections

Forty-four House Republicans are heading for the exits, and almost half of their seats have become top Democratic targets.

ISSAQUAH, Wash. — A glut of GOP retirements has House Republicans defending a record number of open seats this fall — further fueling the odds of a Democratic takeover.

Of the 44 districts left open by incumbents who are retiring, resigning or seeking higher office, Democrats are targeting almost half of them. They need to gain 23 seats to win the House majority.

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The open seats may be an overlooked factor in an election season dominated by GOP angst over a potential voter backlash against President Donald Trump. Recent history explains why Republicans are so concerned: In the past six midterm elections, the president’s party has not retained a single open seat he failed to carry two years prior, according to an analysis by the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman.

“Retirements and open seats could be our biggest problem right now,” said Brian Walsh, a Republican consultant who leads the pro-Trump outside group America First, which will spend on a handful of House races in 2018. “New candidates have to fight their way through a primary and don’t have the same fundraising ability and built-in name recognition [as incumbents]. That’s a huge challenge.”

The vacant seats run the gamut, from traditionally Republican districts like a pair that have become more competitive since Reps. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) and Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) lost their primaries, to the Seattle exurb-based seat of retiring Rep. Dave Reichert, one of eight Republicans heading for the exits in districts that voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.

Republicans poured energy into finding replacements who could replicate the cross-party appeal of departing incumbents like Reichert, the onetime King County sheriff famed for his role in the capture of the notorious Green River Killer in 2001.

“We have more retirements than I would have liked, but we have great recruits,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers. “There are a few folks that I tried to talk to [to] stay in that didn’t stay in, and that’s just, it’s unfortunate that they didn’t stay.”

In Washington, the GOP landed candidate Dino Rossi, a former state senator and candidate for governor and Senate who billed himself in an interview with Politico as a bipartisan deal-maker tired of “all the yelling in Washington.” In three unsuccessful statewide campaigns, Rossi won Washington’s 8th District each time, building his name recognition along the way. He’s also sitting on more than $ 1.8 million in cash. Democrats, meanwhile, battled through a crowded primary that delivered Kim Schrier, a pediatrician and first-time candidate, to the general election.

Rossi’s pedigree has some Republicans believing Reichert’s district could still be a bright spot on the House map, despite the gloomy national historical record. But the August primary results offered a harsh corrective to any budding optimism.

Washington’s all-party primary usually serves as a good forecast of November results, since candidates from both major parties appear on the same ballot. Democratic candidates collectively received 50 percent of the vote this August, while Republicans got 47 percent — a sign of the Democratic enthusiasm seen in other elections in 2017 and 2018.

Elections

Schrier is seeking to push the advantage, arguing that Rossi “paints himself as a moderate, but he’s not,” citing his stances against abortion rights and federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

“Dino Rossi is a career politician,” she told more than 50 voters gathered at the Aerospace Machinist Hall in Auburn on a recent Saturday afternoon. “He will be hard-right activist and that’s not a very good fit in this moderate district.”

But Rossi says he has unique bipartisan credentials that can win the same ticket-splitters who regularly voted for Clinton or former President Barack Obama while reelecting Reichert. In an interview at his campaign office, Rossi rattled off a list of local Democratic officeholders who have endorsed him, calling them “Dino-crats.”

“Obviously, in [the first midterm] year, it can be very volatile, and you can be affected by things that are outside of your control,” Rossi said. “But I’ve been able to separate myself … I’ve always been able to have a brand of my own, so that separates me from some of the chatter that goes on up above.”

Rossi added that he’s “never run on social issues,” adding that Schrier is the “most liberal” candidate he’s running against, “and I’ve run against [Sen.] Patty Murray.”

That could be an obstacle for Schrier, who has to appeal to voters not just outside Seattle, but “on the other side of the mountains,” where Republicans dominate, said Bonita Migliore, a 61-year-old voter who questioned Schrier about her plan to connect with rural voters at the meeting. “That’s my biggest worry. If you don’t get them, the chances of winning are slimmer … that’s how Reichert held on, getting those rural voters and moderates.”

For both parties, running without an incumbent is a perennial problem. Democrats, too, must defend upward of a dozen open, Democrat-controlled seats in 2018. Unlike the GOP, the wind remains at their back.

Fred Hubbell

The marquee Republican retirement this year is House Speaker Paul Ryan, who announced last April that he wanted to spend more time with his teenage children. (“How can he make a case to members [to not retire], if he’s not running himself,” said one Republican member who opted for retirement in 2018.)

But the NRCC pointed to the history-making potential of several new candidates, like Republican Young Kim, a former state legislator who would be the first Korean-American woman elected to Congress if she successfully defends retiring GOP Rep. Ed Royce’s California district, which Clinton won by 9 points in 2016. Lea Marquez Peterson, the Republican nominee in Arizona’s 2nd District, currently represented by Senate candidate Martha McSally, would be the first Hispanic woman to represent the state in Congress.

“The recruits who have stepped forward in the most competitive seats have great backgrounds — in some cases, historic — and that’s a testament to what appeals to voters in these districts,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the committee. “That will help us hold a lot of these open seats.”

But most of those candidates lack the name recognition and well-known personal brands that have helped incumbents from both parties defy wave elections in recent years. Some Republican operatives floated that new candidates might be able to put distance between themselves and the national party, particularly in suburban districts, but the benefit is “marginal, at best,” said Robert Stutzman, a Republican consultant based in California.

“Data suggests that you’d rather have the power of incumbency, but sure, there’s an argument that if you’ve got candidates who say they didn’t vote for the tax deal, if that’s a negative in their district, that might help, but not much,” Stutzman said.

Back in Washington, local Democrats believe that Reichert, and all the other Republican retirees, “could smell the scent in the wind, the scent of a Democratic wave,” said Trina Doerfler, a 61-year-old volunteer with the Schrier campaign. “It’s coming.”

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