Is a Democratic wave coming in 2018?

Zachary Price

When Rep. Lamar Smith announced he wouldn’t run for reelection on November 2, he became the second powerful Republican committee chair to do so in the same week.

Smith, Chair of the House Science Committee, and Jeb Hensarling, Chair of the House Financial Services Committee, wield a great deal of power in their current roles. Smith, Hensarling, and fellow Texan Ted Poe, who announced he also wasn’t running on Tuesday, have served a combined 56 years in Congress. So why are they retiring?

If you listen to the Congressmen themselves, they’d like to enter the private sector or spend more time with their grandchildren. In reality, it’s almost certain their retirements have something to do with President Trump. 

Congressional Republicans have spent the last several months voicing their displeasure at President Trump. In September, Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent announced his retirement, citing “disorder and chaos” in Washington. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker announced his own retirement a few weeks later, after he spent the month of August slamming Trump, saying that “The President has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.” In late October, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake became the latest prominent congressman to announce his retirement, and delivered a stirring speech on the senate floor in which he denounced Trump and criticized his colleagues for continuing to support him.

Trump’s dismal approval ratings are killing Republicans in downballot special elections, and his constant tweeting and, you know, complete inability to govern is weighing on congressional Republicans who have no interest in defending his increasingly ridiculous statements.

Individual retirements don’t necessarily mean anything, but the relatively high number of retirements from Republicans in potentially flippable seats could seriously threaten the Republican majority in the US House. Take Smith’s seat, for example: Trump won TX-21 by just ten points after Mitt Romney carried it by 22 points in 2012. While Smith’s strong local ties and incumbency advantage made his seat unlikely to flip, his retirement could put it into play.

Going into the Nov. 2017 election, the Republicans had a 32-seat majority in the Virginia House of Delegates, the lower chamber of the Virginia state legislature. In one night, the Democrats wiped out that majority, flipping 16 previously Republican-held state legislative seats pending recounts. The events in Virginia, coupled with the uncertain political climate and discontent within the Republican Party, make the Republican stranglehold on the Texas House of Representatives look a little less certain. The Democrats would need to flip just four more seats than they did in Virginia to end 14 consecutive years of Republican control.

The big question for 2018 is what effect Donald Trump will have on Republican’s electoral chances. Traditionally, the president’s party gets punished in the midterm elections. Republican pundits have been insistent that relatively poor results in special congressional and state legislative elections aren’t reflective of the national climate. But Tuesday’s vote strongly refutes those arguments, with Democrats not only taking back a huge number of Virginia legislative seats, but also easily winning governor’s mansions in Virginia and New Jersey.

Trump’s crushing unpopularity, this year’s election results, and the rush of vulnerable Republican retirements look like they could result in a wave election in 2018, putting dozens of congressional seats and a decent number of unlikely governorships and state legislative chambers up in the air. If Democrats can stay energized and field strong candidates across the board, 2018 could be a soul-crushing year for the Republican Party.

Price is a government sophomore from Austin. He is a columnist. Follow him on Twitter @price_zach.