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Rep. Frank LoBiondo and Rep. Dave Trott are part of a string of moderate Republicans retiring this year.
And while LoBiondo’s New Jersey coastal district and Trott’s Northwest Detroit district may appear to have little in common other than they were both carried by Donald Trump in 2016, the race to replace them demonstrate the primary problems Republicans face in seats held by retiring GOP lawmakers, a factor that could boost Democratic hopes of retaking control of the House of Representatives.
In LoBiondo’s South New Jersey district, finding a quality GOP candidate has proven a challenge. And while there’s still time before the April 2 filing deadline, Democrats have State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, a well-known, powerful local politician, whose entry into the race caused several political watchers to declare the contest a toss-up.
There’s a different problem in Trott’s Michigan district – too many Republicans want an opportunity to replace him in Congress, leading to splintering concerns: primaries so crowded with candidates that a more conservative one or a controversial name could be crowned the winner, possibly leading to a seat loss or governing problems for the GOP next year.
The Republican problem is not new. For the past decade the party has seen districts held by long-time lawmakers with no heirs apparent or faced messy, crowded primary fields in these contests.
“One thing that is just generally true about midterm elections is that open seats can be hard to hold, particularly if the political winds are blowing in the other party’s direction,” said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Democrats have faced the problem too. In 1993 and 1994, 20 Democratic lawmakers retired leading up to the Republican revolution that resulted in their control of the House.
There are 21 House seats this cycle where GOP lawmakers are simply hanging up their hats and calling it a day. And it’s fueling Democratic dreams of picking up the 24 seats they need to retake the House in November.
There are GOP success stories in these districts, of course. In Washington’s competitive 8th Congressional District, Republican candidate Dino Rossi is seen as a strong contender to hold the seat and is leading his closest Democratic competition in fundraising.
“The cream always rises to the top and we are poised to have strong candidates in House races who can articulate our powerful economic message in contrast with a Democratic Party that thinks thousands of dollars in individual employee bonuses and millions of dollars of new investments is ‘crumbs,’” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt.
But there are other districts like LoBiondo’s, where a moderate Republican is retiring and there’s no strong heir apparent. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida is one of them.
Candidates Crowd the Primaries
Across the country in California, moderate Republican Ed Royce is not seeking reelection and there’s a large field of contenders to replace him. And that the same problem can be seen further south in retiring Rep. Darrell Issa’s district.
Issa’s seat in particular would be a prize catch for Dems. In an interesting twist, there are two Republican contenders with different backers: state assemblyman Rocky Chavez was endorsed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former state assemblywoman Diane Harkey is supported by Issa.
Democrats have the same problem in the district, however, with a big field of candidates dominated by two prominent names: Doug Applegate, a retired Marine who came within one point of defeating Issa in 2016 and Sara Jacobs, a former Hillary Clinton staffer who’s the granddaughter of Irwin Jacobs, a Qualcomm founder. She’s backed by EMILY’s List and has loaned her campaign a million dollars.
“It is a total free-for-all,” Darry Sragow, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, said of the primaries.
In the California primary system, the top two candidates advance to the general election – no matter their party. In these competitive seats, it could be two Republicans or a Republican vs. Democrat on the ballot in November.
Crowded primaries also can be dominated by controversial candidates, which could be a factor in contests in Kansas and Michigan.
In Kansas, where 10-term Rep. Lynn Jenkins is retiring, state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald got national attention in March of last year when he said that Planned Parenthood was “much worse” than a Nazi concentration camp, according to the Kansas City Star.
Controversial candidates like these can cause problems in the general election should they end up on the ballot, getting attention for all the wrong reasons, political experts warn.
Fitzgerald won't have an easy time winning the nomination. There are two other state lawmakers running and while the seat leans Republican, Democrat Paul Davis, a former gubernatorial nominee, has beat the GOP competition in fundraising.
In Michigan, former Rep. Kerry Bentivolio is running for Trott’s seat, which Bentivolio held for one term in 2011. He garnered national attention when he first went to Washington for being a reindeer farmer and a political outsider.
“The problem for Republicans is that the two candidates with the highest name ID are the two candidates they’d least like to see be the nominee,” said Michigan political strategist Bill Ballenger of The Ballenger Report in reference to Bentivolio and former state Rep. Rocky Raczkowski.
Republicans have two strong contenders in the race: Lena Epstein, who co-chaired President Trump's Michigan campaign in 2016 and Kristine Bonds, who is the daughter of the late, prominent Detroit TV anchor Bill Bonds. Epstein has $1.2 million cash on hand but she loaned her campaign almost a million dollars.
And there also are two state lawmakers running: Klint Kesto and Mike Kowall.
Democrats have a big cast of colorful characters in this contest too: including Haley Stevens, who worked on the auto task force that aided General Motors and Chrysler in their bankruptcy; state Rep. Tim Greimel; businessman Dan Haberman, who helped to lead the effort to ban smoking in Michigan public places; and Suneel Gupta, the brother of CNN medical reporter Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Still More to Come
Political watchers know that this early in the election — before any primary elections have even taken place — means there's still time to change race ratings, flip your favorite candidates, boost your fundraising numbers, and increase your standing in the polls.
Democrats have seven lawmakers flat-out retiring and Republicans have hope of picking up three of those seats: Carol Shea Porter’s in New Hampshire, Rick Nolan’s in Minnesota, and Ruben Kihuen’s in Nevada.
Meanwhile, eight of those retiring GOP lawmakers’ seats are seen as in play for Democrats. And the contests haven’t been finalized yet.
“We can’t quite close the book on the recruiting picture just yet,” Kondik said. “Some of these seats just recently became open.”
And the filing periods in a lot of these states haven’t closed yet, meaning more candidates can run and adding to the political uncertainty in what’s likely to be a memorable midterm election.
Plus there have been signs of a GOP resurgence in recent weeks. Polls show the generic congressional ballot is tightening and that while Democratic enthusiasm is high among their own, which could help that party in swing districts, it’s not as high in GOP-held areas.
One race in New Jersey where party enthusiasm could be a big factor is in New Jersey, where Democrats are coalescing around former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor Mikie Sherrill, who is running to replace retiring Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen.
Frelinghuysen’s retirement, when he still had two terms to serve as chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, sent waves through New Jersey politics. Republicans got a quality candidate in Assemblyman Jay Webber but he comes in the race at a financial disadvantage. Sherrill has $822,000 cash on hand.
Pockets of Democrats in this district could flip the seat.
“They’re feeding on each other to kind of get on out there and vote,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray of the Democrats. “If it’s an area that has this nascent, quiet Democratic hub that a Republican incumbent tends not to worry about, this is the year that they should worry about it.”
Pennsylvania has three Republican lawmakers (and one Democratic one) flat out retiring but the state is in a holding pattern for both parties until the new congressional map is determined.
After the primary, comes the general election
Primaries can present challenges beyond just winning a race. Who the eventual victor is can complicate matters for Republicans down the road, particularly if they hold the House by a razor-thin margin, political experts say.
A higher percentage of conservatives in the GOP caucus would make it difficult for GOP leaders to keep the troops in line on votes.
The possibilities of this happening are on display in Texas, which has six Republican lawmakers retiring this year.
Conservative candidates could dominate at least two of these primaries where Sen. Ted Cruz, who’ll be at the top of the GOP ticket, has endorsed candidates and the Club for Growth is involved.
Cruz and the conservative group are backing Chip Roy in retiring Rep. Lamar Smith’s district. And with double-digit candidates in the field a group’s backing can make a huge difference.
“And that’s why we’re playing so heavily in Chip Roy’s field,” said Club for Growth spokesperson Rachael Slobodien. The Club is also in play in retiring Rep. Jeb Hensarling’s district although it hasn’t endorsed a candidate yet.
Several Texas primaries have multiple candidates running. If no candidate gets a majority, there will be a run off election on May 22.
“From the perspective of Washington, these dynamics are troubling and there’s just a lot of uncertainty,” said James Henson, the director of The Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Whoever is leading whatever Republican caucus there is in the House come January 2019 has got to be watching these races with some intrepidation.”