Cameron Joseph is Talking Points Memo's senior political correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He covers Capitol Hill, the White House and the permanent campaign. Previous publications include the New York Daily News, Mashable, The Hill and National Journal. He grew up near Chicago and is an irrationally passionate Cubs fan.
Amidst growing signs of a potentially huge Democratic wave in the 2018 midterm elections, a raft of key Republican would-be candidates are deciding to stay onshore rather than risk drowning in its undertow.
Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) dealt his party the latest in a series of rapid-fire blows to its hopes for holding on to control of Congress on Thursday, announcing that he won’t run against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). Just one day earlier, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) announced he wouldn’t seek reelection in a tough-to-hold swing district. The day before that, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) did the same.
Those decisions have Republicans growing even more worried about losing the House and possibly seeing the Senate flip as well.
“It’s a concern. The last thing you want is open seats in a bad year, particularly if they’re in competitive districts,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, told reporters Thursday. “We are going to have a very challenging cycle and there’s no question the majority’s at risk.”
Cramer’s decision after both President Trump and Senate GOP leaders pushed to run leaves them without a well-known candidate in a state Trump carried by more than a two-to-one margin. Issa and Royce were two well-known incumbents with huge war chests. One week ago Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) dropped his bid against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), leaving the GOP without a well-known candidate there as well, though Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH) has since announced a bid of his own.
Even Republicans who’d previously dismissed the building narrative around their retirement and recruitment problems admitted that the latest news partly confirmed the pattern.
“Royce and Issa were the members retiring, to me, that started validating the narrative that with all due respect many of you have been pushing for some time,” Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA), who’s facing a tough reelection battle of his own, told TPM. “My sense was some of that was looking at what the political environment was and making a calculation.”
One Republican who broke the pattern of shying away from a challenging environment could damage their chances in another key race: Deeply controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R) announced an Arizona Senate bid on Tuesday. (The GOP establishment’s favorite and their best chance to hold the seat, Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), launched own bid on Friday).
“It’s concerning, it is,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told TPM about the Senate GOP’s recruiting failures — and Arpaio’s decision to run for his seat. “It’s going to be a tough environment.”
There are four concrete things to watch for in looking for a potential wave election.
The first is polling. Trump’s approval rating is mired in the high 30s, a historic low for a president this early in his term, and Democrats have held a lead in the upper single digits or low double digits in surveys of which party should control Congress (slightly above the seven- or eight-point lead they likely need to flip the House due to structural disadvantages).
The second is candidate fundraising, and Democratic candidates are essentially printing money while most Republicans are struggling.
The third is how off-year elections go. Democrats posted a record-setting margin in the Virginia governor’s race last November before pulling off a shocking upset to pick up an Alabama Senate seat last month that put Senate control up for grabs in a real way by narrowing the GOP majority to 51-49. While Democrats haven’t won any House special elections, their candidates have out-performed their historic numbers in almost every contest so far.
“If you look at Virginia, that’s a bellwether, that’s a scary one in terms of where young voters and women are. That ought to be sobering for Republicans,” Flake said.
The fourth big indicator is incumbent retirements and candidate recruitment. The GOP’s latest setbacks in this category come after a long string of House Republicans in swing seats have announced retirements, and a number of top-tier recruits have passed on Senate bids.
The current number of House GOP retirements — 29 and counting — is outpacing the retirement rate even in previous wave elections (22 Republicans retired ahead of the 2006 Democratic wave, 19 Democrats ahead of the 2010 GOP wave and 27 before the 1994 wave). That includes incumbents in swing or Democratic-leaning districts like Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Charlie Dent (R-PA), Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and Dave Reichert (R-WA).
Senate Republicans are defending just one incumbent in a state Trump lost (Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV)) while Democrats are defending 10 of their own in states Trump won, including in five states he carried by 18 percentage points or more. That means in a neutral year they’d be on offense.
But the GOP has failed to land its initial favorites in states like Montana (state Attorney General Tim Fox), Wisconsin (Rep. Sean Duffy), Michigan (Rep. Fred Upton) and Missouri (Rep. Ann Wagner). Only in Missouri are they particularly bullish about their replacement, state Attorney General Josh Hawley (R). Republicans still hope that Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) will jump in against Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), but he’s dragged his feet on deciding — and if he doesn’t run they’re unlikely to get a serious candidate in another state Trump won last year.
“There are still some efforts underway to recruit in a few of the states, North Dakota being one of them,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-SD) told reporters Thursday after expressing “disappointment” about Cramer’s decision. “There’s going to be a question of whether the governor runs in Florida, there’s going to be a question of who the candidate is in Ohio … and Montana for that matter.”
On the other side, Democrats have so many House candidates running that their biggest concern in most races is crowded primaries, and they’ve landed top candidates in their few Senate targets — Arizona and Nevada — while putting Tennessee on the map by getting former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) into the race. Some are also bullish about Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) making things competitive against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
And while some other Republicans tried to talk up North Dakota state Sen. Tom Campbell (R), the only announced candidate against Heitkamp, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) admitted he had no idea who that was after expressing disappointment over Cramer’s decision.
“I honestly have not met that state senator, him or her, whoever it is,” he told TPM.
National Republican Senatorial Committee deputy chairman Thom Tillis (R-NC) argued the party has “a pretty good bench of candidates.” And while he admitted disappointment about Cramer, he said it was still early in the recruiting process.
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) agreed. But he paused for a full five seconds when TPM asked which candidates he was excited his party had landed.
“Man, now you’re going to ask me to pick and choose. I don’t think I want to go there,” he said.
Rounds later mentioned former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) as a potential top Senate candidate. But the other recruit he brought up unprompted was telling what type of year 2018 might shape up to be for his party.
“The one I think is going to be challenging for Republicans is actually going to be Phil Bredesen in Tennessee,” he said. “He’s going to be a very competitive challenger.”
Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) has decided to pass on a Senate bid and will run for reelection, leaving Republicans without a top-tier challenger to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and boosting her chances in the heavily Republican state.
Cramer, a close ally of President Trump’s who was in the running for a cabinet nomination last year, is the latest North Dakota Republican to take a pass on challenging the popular Heitkamp in a state Trump won by a lopsided 63 percent to 27 percent in 2016. His office confirmed to TPM local reports that he’d passed on a Senate bid and will run for reelection.
He’d initially been Senate Republicans’ favored candidate before a series of gaffes early last year. After other potential candidates passed, he once again became their top choice. In recent weeks, both Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had personally lobbied Cramer to run.
His decision greatly increases the chances that Heitkamp won’t face a top-tier opponent in this election — and boosts Democrats’ hopes of making gains in the Senate in the 2018 reelections, and potentially winning back control of the upper chamber.
It’s also the latest recruiting failure for Republicans, who didn’t get their top choices in races in Montana and Michigan. They recently lost their front-runner to face Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), though Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH) has now declared a Senate bid as a result. Republicans are still waiting on Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) to decide if he’ll run for Senate, and the party has seen a raft of House retirements in recent days. Those, along with recent polling and fundraising figures, are the latest signs of a building Democratic wave for 2018.
North Dakota State Sen. Tom Campbell (R) is the only declared candidate against Heitkamp at this point, and he’s so far proven to be a weak fundraiser, leaving Republicans casting around for another option.
They still have a bit of time — the primary isn’t until June, and the filing deadline isn’t until April.
Democrats were thrilled that a pair of senior California Republicans decided to retire this week, seeing new opportunity in a pair of must-win districts in their quest to retake the House majority.
But while Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Ed Royce’s (R-CA) decisions to head home take two tough incumbents with huge war chests out of the picture, their retirements leave Democrats facing a new worry: Whether they might fail to get a candidate into the general election in either district due to California’s unusual “jungle primary” system.
The state, by law, holds all-party June primaries where the top two candidates to receive votes face off in the general election, regardless of what party they align with. That’s cost Democrats a chance at contesting open swing seats in the past — and could be especially problematic this year with the glut of candidates running for these seats.
Democrats are very aware of the problem, and the DCCC isn’t ruling out getting involved to try to push its favored candidates and freeze others out. But there’s only so much the party can do, especially when candidates have plenty of money and aren’t scared of party elders.
“The top two [primary] is absolutely an issue. It’s happened before. It’s also very difficult to get candidates to not run, it’s just a fact of life,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), a vice chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told TPM Wednesday afternoon.
Democrats know from experience how problematic the top-two primary system can be. In 2012, then-Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar (D), a top Democratic recruit, split the Democratic vote with three other candidates in that year’s primary, finishing behind then-Rep. Gary Miller (R-CA) and a Republican state senator. He was boxed out of the general election as two Republicans squared off in a district that President Obama ended up winning by a 16-point margin, costing the party the seat until he won it in a second try in 2014.
“Nobody has the scar tissue of the top-two primary like I do. We need to be mindful of that as we move forward in both the 39th and 49th,” Aguilar told TPM, referencing the two newly open Southern California seats. “The DCCC is aware of what happened to me in 2012, and we’re all going into this with our eyes wide open.”
Aguilar isn’t the only one worried about Democrats potentially getting boxed out of the general election, costing the party prime pickup opportunities. Nor is his experience the only time it’s happened to the party. Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA) won his seat by defeating another Republican in 2014 in a competitive district after Democrats failed to get a candidate through to the general election.
The issue was brought up by several members at California Democrats’ weekly caucus luncheon on Wednesday, Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) told TPM.
“People are aware of the Aguilar event in 2012,” he said. “People are aware that it’s an issue and we’ll have to pay particular attention to California.”
The Royce seat is the one Democrats are most concerned about.
Five different Democrats running for the Orange County-based seat had already raised at least $100,000 as of the beginning of October, the last time they had to report their campaign finance numbers.
That includes two self-funders and a candidate who has the support of the big-spending Emily’s List. Self-funding Andy Thorburn gave his campaign $2 million out of the gate, while Gil Cisneros, a Navy veteran and self-funding lottery winner, and Mai-Khanh Tran, a physician with Emily’s List’s support, both had almost a half million dollars in the bank as of three months ago.
That dynamic creates the likelihood of multiple Democrats vying for the Democratic slice of the electoral pie. If Republicans can get two viable candidates to split the GOP primary vote in June, they could luck out and guarantee a win in a seat they should by all rights lose this fall given the district’s slight Democratic lean and a favorable national environment for Democrats.
It’s unclear how many Republicans will run for the seat Royce is leaving. Possible GOP candidates include Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel, former state assemblywomen Young Kim and Ling Ling Chang, and former Orange County Republican Party chair Scott Baugh.
Issa’s district is also a concern. Three Democrats running there had raised at least $200,000 as of three months ago: Issa’s 2016 opponent, former Marine Doug Applegate, self-funding candidate Paul Kerr, and environmental lawyer Mike Levin, who has the support of some environmental groups. While the math is easier for Democrats with just three candidates in the race and the GOP field is far from settled, Republicans could end up with two candidates in the district and screw up Democrats’ hopes of picking off the Democratic-leaning district, which stretches from San Diego’s northern suburbs up to Orange County. State Rep. is Rocky Chavez (R) also seriously considering a run, sources tell TPM, while California State Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey (R) announced her bid on Wednesday.
Open swings seats usually pose the biggest risk for this scenario, as incumbents tend to unite their party’s base. But this year that may not be the case everywhere — posing other potentially unpredictable scenarios.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s (R-CA) coziness with Russia has promoted one serious primary challenger who’s raising real money. With seven Democrats in that race, including four who’d raised more than $100,000 already, two Republicans could potentially sneak through in that district as well — especially if Rohrabacher decides to retire and Baugh decides to run for that seat instead of Royce’s, as has been rumored locally.
In each district, it’s still a relatively remote possibility that this scenario develops. But every seat matters for Democrats as they try to overcome structural issues and take back House control, and blowing relatively pickup opportunities in California is not the way back to a majority.
Democrats say there’s only so much they can do about the jungle primary situation — and convincing candidates to drop out, the simplest way to avoid their math problem, is almost impossible once they’ve been in the race a while.
“It is monumentally difficult to tell someone not to run, and the only thing more difficult than that is to tell someone not to run who’s been running for a year,” said Lieu. “At a very basic level there’s not much anyone can do. It will be what it will be.”
The Trump administration has handed Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) a major political win as Republicans try to entice him to run for the Senate, promising to spare his state from its plan to massively expand offshore drilling.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke flew to Tallahassee to meet with Scott Tuesday night and pledged to exempt Florida from his plans to open nearly all coastal areas in the U.S. to offshore drilling, while heaping praise on the governor for his work.
Republicans from Trump on down have spent more than a year pushing Scott, a self-funding billionaire and close Trump ally, to run against Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). The move was seen by many as a naked political ploy — a way to boost Scott’s standing in the state, where offshore drilling is deeply unpopular, while pushing ahead on the plan in states like California where there are fewer local Republicans to worry about helping.
Zinke called Scott a “straightforward leader that can be trusted” in his statement announcing the decision, giving Scott all the credit for the reversal.
“I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver,” he said. “As a result of discussion with [Scott] and his leadership, I am removing Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms.”
The move came after Scott came out blasting the plan when Zinke announced it last week, his first major break with the Trump administration.
That’s a departure for Scott. He supported more offshore drilling in his first gubernatorial run in 2010, though the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that damaged parts of Florida’s gulf coast made the politics even worse for him on that issue.
Democrats and environmental groups groused at how the decision came about.
“Nobody’s fooled by this publicity stunt. Florida is at risk for offshore drilling because the Trump administration chose to put it at risk. If Secretary Zinke has really turned over a new leaf and decided to listen to local voices, he should listen to the outpouring of opposition coming from communities, businesses, and elected officials from both parties up and down our coasts and promptly withdraw his radical offshore drilling plan,” League of Conservation Voters Deputy Legislative Director Alex Taurel said in a Tuesday night statement.
“Rick Scott has and always will be a self-serving con-man. It’s unfortunate that he and his friend President Trump would manufacture a crisis to try and help his political ambitions, but in doing so they’ve shone a bright spotlight on Scott’s long record of backing oil drilling off Florida’s shores and beaches,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein said.
The fix was always in to help Scott, according to Politico, which reported that Zinke had told people when he first announced the plan last week that he planned to roll back the plan to open up Florida’s coasts in order to boost Scott politically.
Zinke’s plans to open up vast stretches of the U.S. coastline for oil drilling threaten to hurt Republicans in those areas, and could hurt the GOP’s chances of holding House seats up and down both coasts in 2018, as TPM has previously reported. But Florida was one of the two biggest problem areas for Republicans because of the plan, along with California — and the machinations seem intended to help, not hurt Scott, giving him a chance to break with the administration before scoring a political victory.
It’ll be interesting to see whether California House Republicans facing tough reelection races get the same treatment treatment from Zinke.
Federal judges in North Carolina have struck down state Republicans’ highly gerrymandered North Carolina congressional map as unconstitutional. The ruling could cost the GOP House seats in November’s midterm elections if the Supreme Court doesn’t delay the decision by the Supreme Court because of other redistricting cases it’s currently considering.
A three-judge panel ruled on Tuesday that Republicans had illegally gerrymandered the state’s map to their advantage.
This is not the first time courts have thrown out North Carolina’s congressional map. In May 2017, the Supreme Court declared it an illegal racial gerrymander, a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Tuesday’s ruling went much further, arguing that the congressional map violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution, as well as the First Amendment and Elections Clauses.
The district court’s decision may be stayed by the Supreme Court, which is currently considering a pair of cases to determine whether or not extreme partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional.
According to Tuesday’s ruling, however, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled statehouse must redraw the map with weeks to spare before the 2018 elections, or the court will appoint a special master to do it for them. If the Supreme Court upholds that part of the ruling, Democrats could see a huge boost—they currently only hold three of the swing state’s 13 congressional seats.
More litigation is likely to come before it’s clear what will happen to North Carolina’s congressional map, but the ruling is the latest blow to gerrymandering—and potentially to Republican control of the House, which is built partly on a series of gerrymanders in large swing states like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, as well as Wisconsin, whose maps are currently in front of the Supreme Court.
Arpaio, a deeply controversial former Maricopa County sheriff who President Trump pardoned after Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court for refusing to obey a court order to stop racial profiling, announced Tuesday that he’ll run for the Senate.
“There’ll be a lot of people running in Arizona,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-CO) told TPM Tuesday.
That’s more than others were willing to say.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) simply shook her head when TPM asked her thoughts about Arpaio’s candidacy.
“I think I’ll stick to my own situation,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), who may face a primary of his own, told TPM.
Many others begged off as they entered Senate lunches less than two hours after Arpaio made his announcement.
“I hadn’t seen the news yet,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT). “I’m sure it’ll be a crowded primary.”
“Let me understand the story before I comment on the story,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS).
“In fairness, I have not ever had the opportunity to meet him. Obviously he’s got a name and a reputation that precedes him, but I think it’d be important for me to meet him,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said when asked if she would be happy to serve with the controversial figure.
It’s unclear how serious Arpaio is about a bid — or whether his candidacy could actually help Republicans hold the seat, as he might split the hard-right pro-Trump vote with former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R) and open up Rep. Martha McSally’s (R-AZ) path to the nomination.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), the seat’s current occupant, was dismissive of Arpaio’s intentions.
“Write about it fast, it won’t last long,” he joked, shaking his head when asked if he thought Arpaio was serious about a campaign.
Flake wasn’t the only one who predicted Arpaio wouldn’t actually be make it to the late August primary. Multiple Arizona Republicans speculated it was just a way for the limelight-loving 85-year-old to get back on camera after losing his reelection last fall (and for his consultants to rake in the cash).
“This is someone that’s just starving for attention and consultants who are more than happy to engage in a money grab,” said one senior GOP consultant not affiliated with any campaign.
But whether or not Arpaio is the eventual nominee, he could further create headaches for the party in the wake of an embarrassing loss in Alabama, where accused child molester Roy Moore lost a Senate race last month in spite of backing from Trump and the national party. His also complicates how Trump’s team might handle the race, just days after Trump promised Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) he’d back incumbents and help him hold the majority.
The race is one of Democrats’ two best pickup opportunities besides Nevada. They need to defend all of their own seats and pick up two to win back Senate control — a tough challenge as they’re defending 10 seats in states Trump won last year, but one that looks increasingly possible after Alabama and in light of Trump’s terrible numbers.
Democrats are excited about their likely nominee, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) — and think she would crush either Ward or Arpaio.
“I think Kyrsten Sinema is going to be my colleague,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said, calling Arpaio “another Republican candidate who is hurting our democracy, hurting the Republican Party and clearly someone who has hurt a lot of people.”
The White House declined to weigh in on Arpaio’s campaign on Tuesday.
“I can’t comment on the specifics of any election, voicing support for a candidate in a race like that. I’m not going to weigh in to the details of that race or make comments on something that would affect that front,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
It remains to be seen whether Arpaio will seriously pursue this race. But the octogenarian’s attempted comeback isn’t exactly thrilling his potential future colleagues.
Controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R) will run for the Senate in Arizona, throwing a bomb into the campaign to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ).
“I think Washington needs me, the president needs me. I’ve got a lot of experience, 60 years, I’ve dedicated my life serving our country. We’ll see what happens,” Arpaio told TPM in a brief phone conversation Tuesday morning.
Arpaio’s decision to run — first reported by the Washington Examiner — creates further chaos in the race to replace Flake, who decided to retire earlier this year after his criticism of President Trump erased his chances at winning a GOP primary.
The 85-year-old former Maricopa County sheriff has a long history of controversial actions and hostility to immigrants. His department’s sometimes-brutal policing tactics, embrace of racial profiling, and his refusal to change them in the face of court orders led to his being convicted of contempt earlier this year — but he was spared from a possible prison sentence when President Trump decided to pardon his longtime ally.
Arpaio told TPM he didn’t discuss his decision with Trump or White House officials before announcing.
“I haven’t talked to the president about this,” he said. “This is something I decided to do, to go to Washington and be different.”
But he talked up his controversial record, describing it as an asset in the race.
“As a sheriff, I’ve done some controversial investigations,” he said, talking up his earlier work as a DEA agent and later bringing up the construction of a border wall as a way to curtail the influx of “drugs destroying our country.”
If elected, Arpaio would immediately become the Senate’s oldest member — Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) are 84. But he said his age was an asset, not a problem, in the race.
“I’m a senior citizen so I don’t expect to make a career out of Washington like most politicians do,” he said.
Arpaio will square off with former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R), another firebrand conservative, in the race. Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), an establishment favorite who likely would give the GOP its best chance of holding onto the seat, is expected to announce her own bid in the coming days.
The seat is a top pickup opportunity for Democrats, who have rallied around Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). The state is fast trending Democratic due to explosive growth in the Hispanic community, and Trump won it by just four percentage points last fall. Arpaio also lost reelection on the same day in the state’s most populous county, and Republicans worry that Arpaio could cost them the seat — and possibly control of the Senate, after their recent debacle in Alabama with former Judge Roy Moore as their nominee narrowed their edge in the Senate to 51-49.
It’s unclear whether Arpaio’s campaign will ultimately help his party by splitting the hardline vote and giving McSally a better chance at the nomination, or whether his huge celebrity in the state and his devoted following could make him a tough challenge in the race. It’s also unclear how vigorously the 85-year-old will run, or what campaign infrastructure he’ll be able to construct.
Arpaio declined to discuss his primary opponents. But he didn’t sound worried about his chances in the race.
“I’ve never lost a Republican primary in my political career. I don’t expect to lose this one either,” he said.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) will retire at the end of his term, handing Democrats a huge opportunity in a Democratic-trending district and marking the latest sign of a building blue wave in the 2018 elections.
“In this final year of my Foreign Affairs Committee chairmanship, I want to focus fully on the urgent threats facing our nation,” Royce said in a statement Monday evening. “With this in mind, and with the support of my wife Marie, I have decided not to seek reelection in November.”
Royce’s decision to retire is a blow to his party’s hopes to hold onto the Democratic-trending Orange County swing seat. Royce won reelection last year by double digits even as Hillary Clinton was carrying the district by 52 percent to 43 percent — a major shift to Democrats after Mitt Romney won it by four percentage points in 2012.
His decision adds Royce to a growing list of longtime GOP lawmakers who’ve decided to leave Congress instead of facing a tough reelection battle in what’s increasingly looking like a wave election year. A high number of retirements are often a sign of a building political wave, and while many committee chairmen decide to retire from Congress at the end of their tenures rather than take on a reduced role in Congress, Democrats’ double-digit lead in many recent generic congressional ballots is unquestionably playing a role in some of their decision-making. Congressmen often decide to pack things up after talking things over with family over the holidays, and Royce may not be the last one to decide to retire.
The race was shaping up to be Royce’s toughest election in his career. He was held to 57 percent of the vote last year, a solid number but a mark that matched the lowest win percentage of his career, from his first election in 1992, and that came against a candidate who raised just $74,000 for his entire campaign. While some GOP operatives were worried Royce might not be ready to shake off the rust in the district, he was sitting on a campaign war chest of almost $3.5 million — a major sum in an expensive media market.
Democrats had already made it clear the seat would be a top target in next fall’s midterm elections — its population is roughly one third Hispanic and one third Asian American, making it a prime pickup opportunity in the age of Trump.
Five Democrats are already running for the seat that have raised at least $100,000 — including heavy-hitting self-funders Andy Thorburn, his campaign $2 million, Gil Cisneros, another self-funder, and Mai-Khanh Tran, a pediatrician and former refugee from Vietnam who has the backing of EMILY’s List.
Royce is a longtime foreign policy hawk who often sparred with the Obama administration on issues from Iran to North Korea. He’s also taken a hawkish approach towards Russia — calling for more sanctions against the country after its invasion of Ukraine — and his decision to retire could free him up to return to his more aggressive posture towards the country.
With Royce leaving, the GOP faces a potentially tough recruiting challenge in the district, though they said they’ll fight hard for it.
“Republicans are fired up and ready to hold this seat. Orange County has no shortage of Republican talent and a highly organized ground effort with the NRCC at the forefront,” NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers (R-OH) said in a statement. “We have just one message for Democrats who think they can compete for this seat: bring it on.”
Republicans lost their only serious candidate to challenge Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) on Friday, as state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) issued a surprise statement dropping out of the race.
“We recently learned that my wife has a health issue that will require my time, attention and presence. In other words, I need to be there,” Mandel said in a statement to supporters. “Understanding and dealing with this health issue is more important to me than any political campaign.”
The shock decision leaves state Republicans scrambling for a top-tier candidate to face Brown in a state that President Trump easily carried last fall. But even before Mandel dropped his campaign, it was looking like an uphill battle for the GOP to unseat Brown, a populist warrior whose numbers have remained strong in the state.
“Ohio’s looking a lot like the rest of the nation in terms of the overall political environment. It’s going to be a tough race, Sherrod Brown’s going to be well funded and maybe that made the decision for Josh easier and maybe makes the decision for others harder to get into this,” former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine told TPM shortly after Mandel’s announcement.
Mandel had backing from the establishment and tea party wings of the GOP, and had appeared likely to cruise to nomination after other top Republicans took a pass on the race. But his decision to drop out may not be a major setback for the party. Brown defeated Mandel in 2012 by 51 percent to 45 percent, running ahead of President Obama, and Mandel had exposed his flaws as a candidate in that campaign.
Republicans are looking at a crowded primary field for governor, and either Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH), Ohio Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor (R) or Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) could decide to slide over to a Senate race, as could Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R), who’s currently running for lieutenant governor. Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH) also had spent much of the past year testing the political waters, but is leaving Congress in a matter of weeks to head the Ohio Business Roundtable, a job he’s unlikely to back out of. Businessman Mike Gibbons is the only Republican left in the race at this point.
But whoever wants a crack at Brown better hurry: The filing deadline for the primary is just a month away, on Feb. 7, and candidates will need to hustle to gather enough petition signatures to get on the ballot.
Vulnerable Republicans on both coasts – and a few places in between – must be pulling out their hair after the Trump administration’s latest moves on marijuana and offshore drilling.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced a plan to open up vast tracts of both the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines for offshore oil and gas drilling leases on Thursday afternoon, just hours after Attorney General Jeff Sessions unleashed federal prosecutors to crack down in states that have legalized marijuana, throwing eight states’ legal regimes into chaos.
Both moves risk further alienating swing voters in coastal states as well as those states that have legalized marijuana or implemented medical marijuana programs. And while neither may be an election-defining national issue, they carry a one-two punch to GOP lawmakers from Southern California to Washington and Florida to New Jersey to Maine who are hoping to hang onto their House seats and represent college educated, traditionally Republican voters already turned off by Trump and worried about the impact of the GOP tax law.
The moves also could further motivate millennial voters to turn out for Democrats. Polls show that nearly two thirds of voters now support legalized marijuana, a huge spike in recent years — and those numbers are much higher with younger voters.
“Coastal Republicans were already having a tough time dealing with constituents who were pissed off about the tax bill,” former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Political Director Ian Russell told TPM. “It’s like they’re handpicking issues they’re not winning on. It’s bizarre.”
The pair of decisions had Democrats banding together in fury — joined by some swing-state Republicans, a telling sign heading into a rough midterm.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), a longtime Trump ally and possible Senate candidate in a state where the Deepwater Horizon oil spill isn’t so distant a memory, made a rare break with the Trump administration following Zinke’s announcement.
In a statement, Scott said he opposed the decision and demanded a meeting with Zinke to “remove Florida from consideration” for more offshore drilling.
He wasn’t alone — Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), a swing-district Republican from coastal Florida, called Zinke’s proposal “extremely alarming and unacceptable” in a statement.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee who represents one of the eight states that has legalized pot sales, was even harsher in his response to Sessions, threatening to hold up all Department of Justice nominees until the policy is reversed.
I am prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation.
Other GOP senators from states with legal pot also criticized the move. But Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), facing a tough primary as well as reelection challenge, put out an ambivalent statement that could further complicate his 2018 chances — and his Democratic opponent, Rep. Jackie Rosen (D-NV), was quick to pounce.
Offshore drilling could hurt Republicans hoping to hang onto House seats in Washington, California, Florida, Virginia, New Jersey, and even Maine and Texas. And Sessions’ move to crack down on legal pot hurts them in Maine, Colorado and Nevada, states that have legalized marijuana sales and have competitive House races.
But nowhere do those dual blows hit harder for Republicans than in California, a state that’s just days into having legalized marijuana after passing a referendum by a double-digit margin last fall and that has a long history of opposition to oil drilling ever since the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that helped create the environmental movement.
“California voters have spoken in terms of where they stand on this issue and if you look at public polling the American public is also speaking. This guy has not only mis-prioritized the limited resources of the department, he is frankly out of sync with where the vast majority of Californians are and I would suggest even most Americans are,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) told TPM of Sessions’ move to upend states’ rights on marijuana regulation.
California Republicans are defending more than a half-dozen vulnerable members, many of them in districts on or near the coast in Orange County, and they were already facing tough races given the state’s repulsion to Trump.
“I definitely would not want to be a California Republican House member right now,” Jack Pitney, a former Republican congressional staffer who teaches at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, told TPM. “If Trump’s approval rating could go any lower in California, it will.”