NJ-11

Even Senior House Republicans Are at Risk in 2018

If there's anything to be learned from past wave elections, it's they don't discriminate on the basis of seniority. In 2010, angry voters did the unthinkable and threw out long-venerated committee chairs like Reps. Jim Oberstar (MN-08), Ike Skelton (MO-04), Paul Kanjorski (PA-11), John Spratt (SC-05), Chet Edwards (TX-17), Solomon Ortiz (TX-27) and Rick Boucher (VA-09) - who had a combined 200 years of congressional experience.

Four years earlier in 2006, Democrats took back the House by ousting powerful Republicans like Reps. Nancy Johnson (CT-05), Clay Shaw (FL-22), Jim Leach (IA-01) and Curt Weldon (PA-07), who had 100 years in the House between them. At the time, Weldon was under an FBI investigation into using his perch on the Armed Services Committee to improperly steer contracts, but Leach's reputation was unsullied. It didn't matter.

Back in 1994, angry GOP voters threw out a slew of powerful Democrats: Ways and Means Chair Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (IL-05), Appropriations subcommittee Chair Rep. Neal Smith (IA-04) and Judiciary Chair Rep. Jack Brooks (TX-09), all of whom had first been elected in the 1950s. Most famously of all, they defeated the sitting Speaker of the House, Rep. Tom Foley (WA-05), on their way to ending Democrats' 40-year majority.

What did these upsets have in common? For the most part, the casualties hadn't had to run a competitive race in years and were caught asleep at the wheel when the political environment took a drastic turn.

Perhaps even more powerfully, their opponents were able to use their longevity in Congress against them. When voters were in the mood for change, voters suddenly realized that involuntarily retiring their longtime member could affect even bigger change. And when voters were desperate to send a message to a president or Washington, they suddenly cared less about the earmarks and personal charm these incumbents delivered.

Fast forward to 2017: the list of 40 Republicans who sit in districts where President Trump won less than 50 percent includes some pretty notable names: Foreign Affairs Chair Rep. Ed Royce (CA-39), 30-year Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (CA-48), former Oversight Chair Rep. Darrell Issa (CA-49), former Chief Deputy Whip Rep. Peter Roskam (IL-06), Appropriations Chair Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ-11), and former NRCC Chair Rep. Pete Sessions (TX-32).

All in all, 14 of these 40 will have served at least a decade by 2018. What do they have in common? With the exception of Issa, who won by 0.6 percent last year, none of them have faced credible, well-funded challenges in the last decade. And ironically, this could make them more vulnerable in a wave scenario than less senior but more recently battle-tested GOP colleagues who know how to run races in the smartphone era.

Already, some of these powerful Republicans are showing their rust. And if Democrats want to win 24 seats, they're going to need to capitalize on these unforced errors.

Frelinghuysen, the newly minted Appropriations Chair, hasn't had to run a real race since 1992. But this week, he drew an official ethics complaint this week after WNYC reported that he had sent an intimidating note to a board member of a local bank warning that one of his high-level employees was a "ring leader" of an anti-Trump activist group in his district called NJ 11th for Change. The employee subsequently left the bank.

That's not the only reason we're changing the 11th CD's rating to Lean Republican. The well-educated district is trending rapidly away from the GOP, Frelinghuysen voted in favor of the AHCA, and he's drawn a female challenger with an impressive resume, former Navy Pilot and federal prosecutor Mikie Sherrill. Republicans hit back at Sherrill for living just outside the 11th CD, but residency issues haven't swayed a lot of House races lately.

Rohrabacher, whose recent campaigns have been most notable for a treasurer who embezzled $250,000, couldn't have picked a worse cycle for Russia to dominate the news. In recent years, he has strangely boasted of a friendship with Vladimir Putin, including an infamous arm-wrestling match. This week it came to light that in 2016, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was caught on tape joking that Putin "pays" Rohrabacher and Trump.

Issa, who may have the least room for error this cycle, generated some bad press this week when he brusquely walked past a Politico reporter, who alleged he gave her a raised middle finger when she tried to ask a question. And after months of refusing to hold in-person town hall meetings, Roskam told an audience at the City Club of Chicago that town hall meeting formats are "miserable" for all involved.

Rep. John Culberson (TX-07), a member of the Tea Party Caucus who has kept a somewhat low profile over the course of his nine terms, hasn't had a remotely competitive race since 2008. But in 2016, Hillary Clinton unexpectedly carried this wealthy Houston seat. Culberson had just $132,000 in his campaign account at the end of March and is almost sure to face a well-funded opponent in one of the most expensive media markets in the country.

Some of these mistakes will fade away with time, but they are more likely to gain velocity in a wave. In 2010, Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge (NC-02) never recovered after he was caught on video grabbing the neck of a meddlesome GOP tracker. Before that, he hadn't faced a tough campaign in a decade. His loss showed that the most damaging episodes are the ones caught on tape, which explains why many GOP incumbents view town halls as a trap.

The biggest advantage for these Republicans is that the election is still 18 months away and there is still time to batten down the hatches. But sometimes, errors cascade. In July 2015, Politico reported that Rep. Scott Garrett (NJ-05) had privately refused to support gay GOP candidates. The fallout lasted all the way through to his loss last November. Incidentally, Frelinghuysen represents a neighboring district.

Of course, it's possible that if the national climate looks bad enough for the GOP into the fall, a number of these incumbents will opt to retire. But that could potentially rob Democrats of an effective line of attack in an era when far fewer voters prize seniority.