By David Thornton
What will happen to Obamacare? Will tax reform become law? What of the myriad investigations of Russian interference in the election? Along with these questions, there is growing doubt about the Republican Party’s ability to hold its congressional majorities in the 2018 elections.
Josh Kraushaar of National Journal writes that many House Republicans are “increasingly alarmed” that Republican congressmen in vulnerable seats are not doing the fundraising work that is needed to defend themselves from Democrat challengers.
“Of the 53 House Republicans facing competitive races, according to Cook Political Report ratings, a whopping 21 have been outraised by at least one Democratic opponent in the just-completed fundraising quarter,” Kraushaar writes. “That’s a stunningly high number this early in the cycle, one that illustrates just how favorable the political environment is for House Democrats.”
Among the Republicans Kraushaar mentions by name are Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), who only raised about a third as much as his leading Democrat rival, John Culberson (R-Texas), Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.) and Leonard Lance (R-N.J.). These seats are all rated as “lean Republican” by the Cook Political Report, but the incumbent Republicans are falling far behind Democrat challengers in fundraising.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who has been criticized for his support of Vladimir Putin and Russia, has only $600,000 in the bank according to the report. His Orange County, California district is in an expensive media market where much more advertising money will be needed. Rohrabacher’s seat is currently rated as a tossup.
Adding to the Republican finance problems are primary challenges from the right. Rohrabacher will be facing a Republican primary challenger in addition to a Democrat in the general election. Former White House strategist and sometimes Trump supporter Steve Bannon is supporting primary challenges to many sitting Republicans.
Republicans currently hold a 46-seat majority in the House of Representatives. If Democrats can win 23 seats, it would tip the balance of power in the lower chamber. Per the Cook Political Report, Republicans currently have 12 tossup seats in the House. This includes two open seats in Washington and Michigan. An additional 23 seats lean Republican, but this includes the four seats mentioned earlier where the Republican incumbent is likely to be outspent by large margins.
In contrast, Cook only rates three Democrat seats as tossup. These are all open due to retirements. Six seats lean Democrat and one of these is Florida’s 27th congressional district where a Republican, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, is retiring.
In fact, Ros-Lehtinen is only one of 18 House Republicans who have announced their plans to retire in 2018. Cook’s David Wasserman notes that so far only four of these retirements are in vulnerable districts, but, with a months to go before the primary season starts, that could change.
In the Senate, things are a bit more solid for Republicans. The only two tossup seats are Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.). Democrats have three seats rated as tossups (Donnelly in Indiana, McCaskill in Missouri, and Manchin in West Virginia) so they would have to run the table to bring the Senate to a tie. In that case, Vice President Pence would cast the deciding vote on legislation, but Republican bills would be even more vulnerable to defections by mavericks like Rand Paul (R-Ky.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).
The reason for the Republican fundraising slump is likely two-fold. Donald Trump’s popularity is not good. This is especially true in swing districts held by vulnerable Republicans. Some Republican incumbents may be tainted by their association with the unpopular president.
Even among Republican voters, the current Congress is not popular. The failure to pass any sort of Obamacare reform bill cemented the perception of a do-nothing Congress. A CNN poll last month showed that twice as many Republican voters support the president as Republican congressional leaders.
As the congressional stalemate has become more apparent, Republican donors have closed their wallets. The party is pinning its hopes for 2018 on the success of tax reform since it has few other accomplishments to show for its majority. A senior House Republican strategist said that he expects many more Republicans to retire if tax reform fails.
It is far from certain that Democrats will take control of the House in 2018, but current trends are not looking good for vulnerable Republicans. If the Democrats win control of the House, it would fundamentally change Donald Trump’s presidency as the Republican takeover of the House in 2010 did for Barack Obama. More ominously for President Trump, a Democratic majority would open the door for a possible impeachment.