Virginia’s elections set off a wave of panic inside the House GOP on Tuesday night, increasing worries that the party’s majority is in jeopardy in 2018 and that more incumbents may decide to retire rather than run for reelection next year.
Democrats’ bigger-than-expected win in Virginia, which included a big gubernatorial win and which may wrest control of the state House of Delegates from Republicans after recounts in several districts, prompted a flurry of phone calls among GOP members and campaign advisers watching the results of a hostile political environment unfold before them.
Paul Shumaker, a Republican strategist based in North Carolina, talked to several of his political clients Wednesday morning, warning them: “First of all, you have to run the race of your life. Second, you have to carve out a unique set of issues for yourself, which is very hard to do for down-ballot races, and localize issues to overcome concerns voters might have about Trump.”
“That’s a tall order,” Shumaker said.
Data points out of Virginia confirm Republicans’ fears that bubbled under the surface all year, which special election victories in safely red seats “glazed over,” said a senior GOP aide. But “now there’s [electoral] evidence that there’s reason to really worry.”
Swing voters in suburban counties outside Washington and Richmond soured on Republicans up and down the Virginia ballot, an ominous sign for dozens of suburban Republicans in Congress, while the progressive base poured out to vote in high numbers. College-educated voters backed Democratic Gov.-elect Ralph Northam with 60 percent of their votes, according to exit polls.
“While we’re several political lifetimes away from next November, it’s clear that if you’re a Republican from a state or district that voted for Hillary Clinton, or has a significant base of college-educated voters, you have a lot of sleepless nights in front of you,” said Robert Blizzard, a Republican pollster.
Tuesday’s results are also serving as a reality check for members who may be considering retirement during a cycle in which it’s become increasingly difficult for Republicans to raise money. Nearly three dozen GOP incumbents were outraised by Democratic challengers in the third quarter of this year, as the liberal base continues to pour money into first-time candidates.
“Every Republican member is sitting down with their chief of staff and campaign consultant this morning to talk about what 2018 looks like,” former Rep. David Jolly said. “For some, they’ll be more strongly considering retiring. For others, last night’s results would suggest the cut line for Republican vulnerable seats just got raised significantly higher.”
Several Republican incumbents have already opted for retirement, vacating battleground seats and improving Democratic chances of flipping them. Reps. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, Dave Reichert of Washington, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Dave Trott of Michigan have all announced plans to retire.
But departures will also complicate Republican efforts to hold the House.