Congress just gaveled in for the second half of the 115th Congress and already a record number of senior Republican lawmakers, along with some vulnerable incumbents, are running for the exits. But in this hyper-partisan Washington, most of the retiring lawmakers and Republican Party leaders are reporting that their party remains strong and unified, even as their Democratic counterparts are showing increasing optimism over their party's chances in November.
The newly announced retirement of nine-term incumbent Darrell Issa (who may still run in a more GOP-friendly neighboring district) means that a whopping 31 incumbents are now walking away from their seats ahead of the 2018 midterms. The map this cycle heavily favors the GOP, but the retirements are starting to make Democrats salivate because they only need 25 more seats to recapture control of the House.
the sea retreats from the shore for kilometers on end, it portends a dangerous
and large wave coming back in, and I think we are seeing that right now," Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly tells Rolling Stone. "Denying that the wave is likely to come back into shore, I think, is maybe a feel-good kind of coping mechanism, but it's not a political strategy for dealing with the reality that they are supportive of and enabling of one of the most unpopular presidents in American history."
Democrats are claiming momentum after a string of overwhelming victories in off-year races, including capturing an Alabama Senate seat for the first time in 25 years and a surprising slate of state legislature seats in places like Virginia and New Jersey. But most Republicans laugh off the optimism emanating from their counterparts.
"They're full of crap," Republican Rep. Raul Labrador tells Rolling Stone, before dismissively brushing aside the opposition. "Democrats are always going to be Democrats."
Labrador, who has launched a gubernatorial bid in Idaho, is one of a handful of Republicans leaving a House seat behind to run for higher office. Internal GOP rules also place term limits on anyone who chairs a committee, and that's partly why eight sitting chairs are hanging up their gavels and heading home (or, more likely, to a lobbying shop over on K St.).
"When you finish your chairmanship, you don't want to just wander the halls aimlessly," Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, the chair of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, tells Rolling Stone. "I don't think this is that much out of the ordinary to have this many people not running for reelection."
But this is out of the ordinary. When Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake announced his retirement, he took to the Senate floor and unleashed a blistering indictment against his party and their titular head, President Trump, telling his colleagues, "I will not be complicit." Retiring Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker also has unleashed on Trump at the end of last year, at one point even tweeting "#AlertTheDaycareStaff" before he took to cable shows to call the president a liar.
But there may be something different in the water on the House side of the Capitol, because the bulk of these retiring GOP lawmakers, at least in public, maintain their party is on the right path.
"Last I looked, I was term-limited and that has a wonderful way of focusing ones attention," Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling, who chairs the Financial Services Committee, tells Rolling Stone. "Listen, I'm bullish. I think this is a great tax reform plan. I think it's historic and I think it is going to lead to great economic growth. And I think people will start to feel it and see it and, as it does, I think so will follow our political fortunes."
And leaders on the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) are also putting a happy face on the opportunities.
"I always think it's good when we have new generations of candidates stepping forward, and I think they need to put together strong campaigns, I have confidence that they'll do so," Rep. Elise Stefanik tells Rolling Stone. "And hopefully they'll tap into this yearning for new styles of leadership."
Stefanik herself has12 Democratic primary opponents vying to oust her from her upstate New York district, but she brushes the opposition aside and says the Democratic Party has become too progressive to win seats like hers.
"I feel great going into this year. Again, they are running further and further to the left getting out of touch with voters in my district. I feel great about where we are," Stefanik adds.
But more senior Republicans are bracing for what could be that impending Democratic wave.
"I've been worried since the day after the election. Nobody has had a good midterm, literally, since 2002," Republican Rep. Tom Cole, a former NRCC chair, tells Rolling Stone. "It's not like there's some guaranteed loss of the majority. But, look, the odds of gaining seats are essentially zero, so you're playing defense across the board. You never like to be in that situation."
With Trump's maintaining a steadily low approval rating, the midterms could prove to be the Democrats' to lose, though Democratic officials deny they're getting cocky.
"But the idea that we're getting over confident? No," Rep. Keith Ellison, the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, tells Rolling Stone. The only sure thing, the only certain thing is a lot of work and engaging people. And we know that historically midterms are very, very difficult, particularly for House races, so we have our work cut out."
And now that former anti-immigrant sheriff Joe Arpaio who was pardoned by Trump announced he's running for the open Arizona Senate seat, Ellison says he welcomes the "criminal, felon" into the race.
"Awesome. They can keep putting those nasty, hateful people up and we're just going to keep knocking them down," Ellison adds. "But we're not going to depend upon them being awful. We're offering an inclusive vision; a fair economy. You know what about that? They're shuffling money to the rich, and we're trying to make sure this country's economy and society is about working people, middle class people, regular folks."