GOP ex­its lift Dems’ hopes

But Repub­li­cans re­ject no­tion of power swing to the left in Congress

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Diaz and Mike Ward

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.”


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