GOP exits lift Dems’ hopes
But Republicans reject notion of power swing to the left in Congress
WASHINGTON — Moments before the polls closed in Virginia’s Democratic sweep, Houstonarea Republican Ted Poe, across the Potomac River on Capitol Hill, announced his retirement in 2018 after 14 years in Congress.
Poe cast his move Tuesday night as a personal decision: “You know when it’s time to go,” he told the Chronicle. “And it’s time to go, and go back to Texas on a fulltime basis.”
But a wave of retirement announcements from Texas Republicans in both Congress and the Legislature already had sparked a lot of speculation that the pendulum of power might swing against the GOP, even possibly to some degree in a deep red state like Texas.
Poe and other Republicans dismissed that notion, arguing that
their prospects in 2018 are strong, particularly in the Senate, where 10 Democratic incumbents face the voters in states won by President Donald Trump.
Democrats, however, celebrated Ralph Northam’s victory over Republican Ed Gillespie in Virginia’s hard-fought governor’s race as the start of an anti-Trump wave that could only grow as the president’s approval ratings continue to sink.
However coincidental, Poe’s announcement — following those of Texas U.S. Reps. Lamar Smith, Jeb Hensarling and Sam Johnson — seemed to add to the buzz. Personal reasons cited
All four represent strong Republican districts. But Democrats believe that Poe’s suburban Harris County district could be within reach if 2018 turns into an anti-Trump backlash.
“We’ve worked from the beginning of this election cycle to expand the battlefield, and that means making sure there are strong candidates who fit their districts ready to capitalize on whatever environment 2018 brings,” said Cole Leiter of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of the House Democrats.
Democratic hopeful Todd Litton, a nonprofit executive in Poe’s district, has raised more than $256,000 for the race, outpacing Poe’s fundraising in the threemonth period between April and June.
Poe, however, called the suggestion that he is running away from a tough reelection “nonsense.” He noted that he won reelection last year with 61 percent of the vote, a substantially better showing than Trump, who won 52 percent of the district’s vote for president.
“I don’t appeal to people on the party label,” said Poe, a former teacher, prosecutor and judge. “I appeal based on who I am.”
GOP strategists say that none of the GOP retirements, particularly Poe’s, should come as a surprise. In June, 2016, Poe announced that he had been diagnosed with leukemia, though it has since gone into remission.
“I’m in good health,” said Poe, 69. “My health was not an issue in my decision. The good Lord has taken care of me.”
But he acknowledged that with the passage of time, he would like to spend more time with his family, including four grown children and 12 grandchildren. “I never intended to make a career out of being in Congress,” he said.
The retirement of Johnson, an 87-year-old ex-fighter pilot and Vietnam POW, also had been expected.
Hensarling’s exit is more surprising. The 60-year-old Dallas Republican is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, a post that puts him at the center of the regulatory debates over Wall Street and the insurance industry, including proposed reforms to the troubled National Flood Insurance Program.
First elected in 2002, Hensarling is still considered one of the GOP’s young Turks. He’s a close ally of Speaker Paul Ryan and one of a record seven Texas committee chairs in the House.
Next year, however, Hensarling faces the GOP’s self-imposed six-year limit on committee chairs, which he acknowledged as a factor in his decision to leave Congress.
He also said he wants to hew to the “Jeffersonian model of the citizen-legislator” who serves in office and then retires to private life. Some observers note that as a leading opponent of federal intervention in the banking system, Hensarling could have a lucrative future in finance.
Hensarling gave only vague indications about his future. “I have a noble aspiration shared by a lot of Americans, and that is I want to work less hard, make more money, and spend more time with my family,” he said.
Smith, a 69-year-old San Antonio Republican, also faces a termlimit as chairman of the House Science Committee, where he has made a name for himself as a leading national skeptic of the idea of man-made climate change.
GOP and Democratic strategists say the prospect of returning to the back benches, possibly under Democratic control of the House, would clearly have little appeal to once powerful committee chairmen.
But Smith, like Poe, said he is not worried about a Democratic wave. “I think we’re in pretty good shape in the midterms,” he said. “I think we’re going to have some positive pieces of legislation to show the American people, starting with tax reform.”
A GOP tax cut bill, still taking shape in Congress, is seen by many Republicans as their ace in the hole after a year of frustration on Obamacare repeal, restrictions on refugees, border wall funding, and a host of other Trump campaign promises. The Democrats’ election gains on Tuesday, coupled with a wave of Republican retirements around the country, have raised the stakes.
“I rarely agree with Nancy Pelosi,” Hensarling said, referring to the House Democratic leader. “But I agree with her on one thing, and that is that everything kind of hinges on tax reform.”
For now, however, Texas Republican Party Chairman James Dickey said he sees no broader significance in the wave of Republican turnovers, and little cause for alarm.
“It’s a healthy changing of the guard,” Dickey said. “It’s a chance for new candidates to step up.” ‘Canaries in coal mine’
But Democrats sense momentum in a toxic, post-Trump political environment where they believe anything is possible.
Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party, called Tuesday’s Democratic gains in Virginia and New Jersey “the beginning of a blue wave.”
But amid GOP recrimination about what went wrong, particularly in Virginia, some Republicans said it is too early to tell.
Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said he “wouldn’t read too much” into the results in Virginia and New Jersey, two states that clearly skew Democrat and went to Hillary Clinton in 2016. But, like Hensarling, he hedged his bet. “The single most important thing that will determine our success in 2018 is for us to pass this historic tax reform,” Cornyn said.
Either way, most consultants — Democrats and Republicans — said the Virginia election results will mean more in Washington than they will in Texas. Gillespie, once a top staffer for former Texas U.S. Rep. Dick Armey, was not only beat in a Southern state, but beat convincingly by nine points.
“In some ways, our 25 Republicans are canaries in the coal mine,” said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, said of the Texas Republicans in the U.S. House. “There is a growing belief that Republicans might lose their majority in the U.S. House in 2018, and it’s nice if you’re in the majority, but not nice at all if you’re not in the majority. If you’re Reps. Poe or Hensarling or Smith, you could find yourself in the minority in 2019 — that makes re-election not so attractive.”
Republicans can afford to lose 23 seats to retain their majority in the House.
Party activists say Republicans in GOP-leaning districts such as U.S. Reps. John Culberson’s and Pete Sessions’ need to be much more attentive to their re-election campaigns, and not take anything for granted. In Virginia, Democrats did particularly well among the sort of affluent, educated suburban voters Culberson needs to stay in office.
In toss-up districts like Rep. Will Hurd’s, re-election promises to be a battle — wave or no wave. In Republican-safe districts such as those held by Poe, Hensarling, Smith and Johnson, GOP candidates should have a smoother ride to election — unless, as Jones puts it, “Republicans nominate a nightmare candidate.”
But a smooth ride is a relative term in the polarized world of Congress, where GOP majorities have had a hard time passing their agenda. Poe is no stranger to those divisions, having broken with the hard-right House Freedom Caucus this year in a dispute over the group’s role in derailing a Republican health care bill.
“It is promising to be an atrociously terrible election year for Republicans,” said Texas Democratic strategist Harold Cook. “A lot of these people would have won anyway because their districts are so heavily Republican. But they were going to have to work harder at it than they normally would have, and that can’t seem like a very fun prospect either.” Who knows?
David Crockett, a political scientist at San Antonio’s Trinity University, said the question lingering after Virginia’s election results: Is this the beginning of something different?
“Texas is still pretty red, but the result of all these retirements could be opportunity for a Democrat in the right circumstances,” he said. “It’s always easier for an opposition party to pick off an open seat … but I still think we’re a decade away from any significant change.”
Texas Democrats, for the most part, have their sights set on Hurd, Sessions and Culberson, whose districts went to Clinton in 2016. Recent internal polling also has bolstered their hopes of flipping the suburban San Antonio district where Smith is retiring.
Around Houston, it would take a pretty big wave for Poe’s 2nd Congressional District to fall into the Democratic column, but in the current political climate, some analysts say, who knows?
“I wouldn’t go to Las Vegas and bet on it,” said Craig Goodman, a political scientist at the University of Houston in Victoria. “But every election cycle, there’s always one or two districts where you’re like, ‘Wow, how did that happen?’ Maybe the 2nd would be that district.”