House Party

With Paul Ryan Gone, the Midterms Are Going to Get Weird

The latest high-profile Republican retirement is set to make House races even more chaotic.

by Robert Wheel
Apr 17 2018, 4:26pm

Welcome back to House Party, our column looking at the 2018 House of Representative races as midterms approach.

Paul Ryan, America’s good boy of starving the poor, has given up. Last week he announced that he was retiring from Congress, ostensibly to spend more time with his kids. But nobody’s ignoring the subtext: Paul Ryan is retiring from Congress because appeasing right-wing billionaire donors isn’t as fun as it used to be.

It also was one more sign that Republican House members running for reelection are in a lot of trouble. Ryan is just the latest and most famous Republican congressman to decide to retire rather than face a rough midterm season. The GOP has a good chance of retaining the Senate thanks to a favorable map, which would mean the party can continue to confirm Trump’s pro-segregation judicial nominees. But in the House, incumbents need to figure out how to persuade what's likely going to be a more-liberal-than-normal midterm electorate that they aren’t just stooges for our big wet president.

It’s a bit late in the cycle for a wave of more congressmen to call it quits, but it’s not out of the question. Thanks to Geoffrey Skelley’s excellent work, we know that few members of the president’s party retire after filing deadlines—Representative Ryan Costello was only the seventh congressman to do so since 1974 when he peaced last month. So I suspect that those already running for reelection in the 33 states where those deadlines have passed are going to ride out the storm. But there are 44 Republican congressmen who haven’t called it quits yet but still have time to do so. (The head of the Republicans’ House campaign arm predicted there wouldn’t be any more than ten future retirements.)

Considering our 2016 experience I’m loath to say seventh months before the election that Democrats will retake the House, though I do think that if the election were held today Republicans would lose the House. Ryan’s retirement means that dark money groups on both sides will focus on the Senate—Republicans sound like they’ll shift their spending there, and Democrats will likely follow suit lest they lose the arms race. That could in turn make the House playing field a little more unpredictable as races will increasingly hinge on local candidate quality, which tends to be obviated by millions of dollars in outside spending. So that’s why we’re going to keep updating you on key House races weekly through November; things are going to get weird.

  • As for Ryan’s seat itself, Republicans are working on drumming up some Rotary Club gladhander replacement for him while Democrats are taking a closer look at Randy Bryce’s candidacy. Bryce, an ironworker who has run for but never won any elected office, was propelled into the national spotlight because he represented such a stark contrast with Ryan, one that Democrats wanted to make. On one hand you had Lanyard Boy standing around the keg talking about pushing millions into poverty, on the other a cancer survivor and veteran union member who stood for the average guy. Yet Bryce is far from flawless—his campaign’s burning through donor money on some dubious projects (like running ads outside Wisconsin) and his message might be less potent against a generic opponent. But one Democrat that shouldn’t get the nomination is Peter Barca, who represented this seat for a single term in the 90s and currently serves in the Wisconsin legislature. Barca supported Scott Walker’s Foxconn boondoggle and I can’t think of any reason why a corporate welfare apologist should get the nomination over Bryce.
  • The Intercept and Splinter took the DCCC to the woodshed for recruiting failed Syracuse mayoral candidate Juanita Perez Williams to run against professor Dana Balter in the 24th District primary. I agree that the DCCC generally should defer to local parties, but the locals aren't free of blame here. After they endorsed Balter they then forced two other candidates out, and another candidate was so pissed at the whole mess (including the DCCC's involvement) that he’s now running as a third-party spoiler. Officials evidently wanted to avoid a primary altogether, but for a first-time candidate like Balter a contested primary would be a good chance to test her strength. If her connection to the grassroots is as strong as she says it is, then what does she have to fear from Williams?
  • In Pennsylvania’s Seventh District, John Morganelli got booed at a Democratic debate when he said he’d ask local law enforcement to cooperate with ICE, which has rapidly become a third rail in Democratic politics. So why are liberals nervous that an authoritarian, pro-life prosecutor like him could win a Democratic primary? Well, he’s won numerous elections in the area before as Northampton County’s district attorney. And he faces two credible Democratic opponents—Greg Edwards and Susan Wild—so he could win a primary with only 40 percent of the vote. The DCCC caught some flak earlier for trying to force one of Edwards or Wild out of the race, but as long as both stay in then Morganelli’s got a decent chance of sneaking through a split primary field.
  • Last year Democrats were elated that State Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez joined the race for Florida’s 27th District. Now they’re relieved he’s staying in Tallahassee. What changed? Well, they attracted a bevy of qualified candidates for the seat while Republicans seem to be conceding it, so they can put a higher priority on races that were more of a stretch last year, like winning a majority in the Florida State Senate (where Rodriguez holds a marginal seat). And Florida just passed a resign-to-run law that would’ve forced Rodriguez (and Miami Commissioner Ken Russell) to abandon their positions to continue running in the 27th. As a result,both have dropped out.
  • But even with Rodriguez and Russell out of the race, the 27th is still a crowded primary and Democrats are at risk of having Republicans’ favorite Democrat, Donna Shalala, win the nomination. Accordingly, Congressman Steny Hoyer asked Matt Haggman, a top fundraiser whose constituency overlaps with Shalala’s, to run next door in the 25th District instead. Trump only narrowly won the 25th and the only Democrat running there has a somnambulant campaign so it could make sense for one of Shalala, Haggman, Mary Barzee Flores, David Richardson, and Kristen Rosen Gonzalez to move their campaign next door. They’d be trading an easier primary for a tougher general election—Clinton won the 27th by 20 points—but the 25th is your better shot at making it to Congress if you’re polling in fifth place in the primary.
  • In Minnesota being endorsed by the party at the local convention carries a lot of advantages heading into the primary, like being able to coordinate your campaign with statewide candidates. So while it’s not impossible to win when the state party has endorsed someone else (Governor Mark Dayton, who is independently wealthy, pulled it off), it’s not easy either. So in the Second District the party’s endorsement of Angie Craig forced Jeff Erdmann to end his campaign, while in the Third Dean Phillips remains the heavy favorite over Adam Jennings. But in the Eighth, the rural northern Minnesota open seat that swung hard from Barack Obama to Donald Trump while returning Representative Rick Nolan to Congress for a final term in 2016, there are still five potential nominees heading into the primary as nobody got the 60 percent of convention votes necessary. I think Joe Radinovich, who ran far ahead of Democratic toplines when he represented a conservative district in the state House and was willing to sacrifice his political career to support marriage equality, is the strongest candidate. But he actually finished behind Leah Phifer, who is ostensibly running to his left but not only worked for ICE but wrote op-eds supporting their tactics after she left the agency. However, Phifer realized that winning the convention was likely her only chance at getting the nomination, so she may drop out.

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Robert Wheel (a pseudonym) is an attorney who lives in New York. He tweets here, and his DMs are open.

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