Reps abandon sinking ship: GOP retirements open a door, but are third parties ready to win?

By: Richard W. Sharp

There’s no putting lipstick on [it].” Republicans are headed for the exits as we close in on the 2018 midterm elections. While it’s a standard tactic to chalk up unpleasant news to some sort of natural cycle, Republicans now admit in public that they’re facing serious electoral headwinds.1 There are currently 49 House seats up for grabs without an incumbent in the race, and those are in Republican districts by a 2-1 margin. Whatever their individual reasons, Republican’s en-masse seem to have a clear opinion about the House come 2019, and it’s not a political future they want to be part of.

Of course, there’s a big gap between Republican weakness and electoral wins by Democrats or third parties that would be open to forming an anti-Republican alliance. In earlier installments of this series we identified several districts with potential for the right third-party candidate. We searched for districts with voters who would never vote for a Democrat, but who weren’t pleased with Republican offerings either. While we stand by the assertion that there’s room for more voices in the political debate, third parties traditionally fare very poorly. Hey guys, as a political party you’re looking to change the system from within, so you need to win. It’s (past) time to close down the vanity projects, get down to fundamentals, and win some seats and relevance. 



Another one bites the dust

The number of candidates who will not seek reelection to the House is 44 and counting, and there are 49 races with no incumbent.2 We’ve blown past the 40 who chose to leave in 2016 and similar numbers in the cycles past. There’s also a pretty clear skew among the 49: 34 Republicans to 15 Democrats.

One trend is clear since our last update in September, 2017, we’ve shifted from “seeking higher office” to “spending more time with my family” (and a few “spending more time with my lawyers”). 25 members are retiring outright, 18 are seeking higher office,  6 House members (including 2 Democrats – this one’s bi-partisan) are exiting thanks to allegations of sexual misconduct, and Patrick Tiberi (R) resigned from Ohio’s 12th this month to jump start his lobbying career.3 Reason’s cited for leaving come from the standard grab bag and include include such time tested standards as “spend more time with my family” and “focus 100 percent on my final year as the chairman.”4 Regardless, the fact is that every GOP retirement makes the Democratic path to a House majority a little easier, especially when big-name incumbents from swingy districts decide to leave (here’s looking at you Darrell Issa, Ed Royce, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Martha McSally, David Trott, Frank LoBiondo, and Dave Reichert).

Here’s the complete (as of January 16th) list of congressional districts that will not have an incumbent on the ballot along with some details about the current or most recent office holder. We’ve updated our assessments keeping in mind the same criteria as before: to be relevant, a third party must earn a valuable swing vote in a year the electorate is moving to the left. This means targeting districts that are out of reach of Democrats, but that not reflexively Republican.

Legend:

  • Green = 3rd party targets.
  • Yellow = The Big 8 (formerly the Big 4), obvious targets, but likely too obvious and out of 3rd party price range.
  • Orange = Long shots, but worth keeping an eye on.
  • * = new entry since our September, 2017 update.
  • What’s the difference between resignation and retirement? Quitting, for reasons other than heading for higher office, before the end of your term.
District Exiting Incumbent Party Tenure Clinton / Trump Spread Reason Cook Report Rating
WV-03 Evan Jenkins (R) 3 -49.2% senate run  
TN-06 Diane Black (R) 7 -48.9% governor run  
PA-09 Bill Shuster* (R) 17 -42.5% retirement  
IN-06 Luke Messer (R) 5 -40.3% senate run  
TN-07 Marsha Blackburn* (R) 15 -39.3% senate run  
ID-01 Raul Labrador (R) 7 -38.3% governor run  
TN-02 John Duncan (R) 29 -35.4% retirement  
IN-04 Todd Rokita (R) 7 -34.1% senate run  
SD-AL Kristi Noem (R) 7 -29.8% governor run  
TX-05 Jeb Hensarling* (R) 15 -28.4% retirement  
VA-6 Bob Goodlatte* (R) 25 -24.8% retirement  
MS-03 Gregg Harper* (R) 9 -24.5% retirement  
UT-03 Jason Chaffetz (R) 8 -23.9% governor run  
PA-11 Lou Barletta (R) 7 -23.8% senate run  
TX-27 Blake Farenthold* (R) 7 -23.6% retirement  
AZ-08 Trent Franks* (R) 14 -21.1% resignation  
PA-18 Tim Murphy* (R) 14 -19.6% resignation Lean R
KS-02 Lynn Jenkins (R) 9 -18.4% retirement Lean R
FL-06 Ron DeSantis* (R) 5 -17.0% governor run  
OH-16 Jim Renacci (R) 7 -16.6% senate run Likely R
MN-01 Tim Walz (D) 11 -14.9% governor run Toss-Up D
TX-03 Sam Johnson (R) 27 -14.2% retirement  
TX-06 Joe Barton* (R) 33 -12.3% retirement  
OH-12 Patrick Tiberi* (R) 18 -11.3% resignation Likely R
NM-02 Steve Pearce (R) 7 -10.2% governor run Likely R
TX-21 Lamar Smith* (R) 31 -10.0% retirement  
TX-02 Ted Poe* (R) 13 -9.3% retirement  
PA-15 Charlie Dent (R) 13 -7.6% retirement Lean R
NJ-02 Frank LoBiondo* (R) 23 -4.6% retirement Toss-Up R
MI-11 David Trott (R) 3 -4.4% retirement Toss-Up R
NH-01 Carol Shea-Porter* (D) 1 -1.6% retirement Toss-Up D
NV-03 Jacky Rosen (D) 1 -1.0% senate run Toss-Up D
WA-08 Dave Reichert (R) 13 3.0% retirement Toss-Up R
NV-04 Ruben Kihuen* (D) 1 4.9% retirement  
AZ-02 Martha McSally* (R) 3 4.9% senate run Lean D
CA-49 Darrell Issa* (R) 17 7.5% retirement Lean D
MI-09 Sandy Levin* (D) 35 7.8% retirement  
CA-39 Edward Royce* (R) 25 8.6% retirement Lean D
MD-06 John Delaney (D) 5 15.1% presidential run  
AZ-09 Kyrsten Sinema* (D) 5 16.3% senate run Likely D
NM-01 Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) 5 16.5% governor run  
FL-27 Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) 29 19.6% retirement Lean D
CO-02 Jared Polis (D) 9 21.3% governor run  
MA-03 Niki Tsongas (D) 11 22.8% retirement  
HI-01 Colleen Hanabusa (D) 2 32.6% governor run  
TX-16 Beto O’Rourke (D) 5 40.7% senate run  
TX-29 Gene Green* (D) 25 45.7% retirement  
MI-13 John Conyers* (D) 52 60.7% resignation  
IL-04 Luis Gutierrez* (D) 25 68.9% retirement  

Let’s also revisit the districts we selected in May as potential third party targets. They’ve all been pretty stable since we last looked. There have been no retirements from these districts, and the Cook ratings haven’t changed since September.

Our Picks From May
District Exiting Incumbent Party Tenure Clinton / Trump Spread Cook Report Rating
MI-03 Justin Amash R 7 -9.4%  
NY-19 John Faso R 1 -6.8% Toss-Up R
GA-07 Rob Woodall R 7 -6.3% Likely R
NJ-03 Tom MacArthur R 1 -6.2% Likely R
PA-08 Brian Fitzpatrick R 1 -0.2% Lean R
PA-06 Ryan Costello R 3 +0.6% Lean R 
NJ-07 Leonard Lance R 9 +1.1% Lean R 
CO-06  Michael Coffman R 9 +8.9%  Toss-Up R

Why not ride the wave?

The recent spate of GOP retirements has led a number of people to predict a Democratic wave in 2018. After all, the party in power tends to lose ground in the midterms, and retirements can be a leading indicator of what’s to come. It’s looking good for Democrats. So why are we obsessed with third parties, which have a reputation for playing spoiler, not kingmaker? Because representative government requires political competition, not collusion.5 For people to have their interests represented, “voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.”

Of course, it’s also necessary to wrest the levers of power from those who would use them to replace the rule of law with one-party rule. Fixing the system, from within the system, means winning influence, that is, demonstrating to the opposition that you can win votes (repeatedly). Ideological purity may be noble, but it isn’t influential: you’re going to have to play well with others in the opposition (just ask Walter Modale, or Eugene V. Debs, or Leon Trotsky, or…).

Third parties have not done this effectively. Take the Green Party for a recent example. Most elected officials with a Green Party affiliation sit on city councils or school boards. The highest office holders are two representatives in the state of Maine’s House of Representatives. Nevertheless, the bulk of the party’s fundraising and spending goes toward its presidential campaigns. In 2016, the Green’s spent 1000 times more money on Jill Stein’s unwinnable campaign that on all its Senate and House efforts.6

1000 times more!

OK, OK, Presidential campaigns cost more. In fact, the major parties also spend 1000x more on a presidential campaign ($1B), than on a House race ($1M). Of course, they have a non-zero chance to win the White House, even when they run candidates like George McGovern. Third party resources have to be used strategically. If you can’t compete for the single presidency or one the 100 Senate seats ($10M), at least make a serious run for one of the 435 House seats.

Green Party expenses 2016 election cycle

Yes, third parties face significant difficulties, for example, the right to appear on the ballot is a state-by-state battle against entrenched interests. A presidential campaign offers fundraising and publicity opportunities to counter these challenges, but even the most delusional campaign knows it isn’t about winning the presidency, so it can’t be where you sink all of your resources.

House seats are winnable for a third party candidate with a serious campaign. Consider Evan McMullin’s independent presidential campaign in 2016. Although he lost, he posted significant results in UT-04, where he placed third in a three-way split 32% (Trump) / 29% (Clinton) / 22% (McMullin). So the right third party candidate can make up for lack of national exposure in a focused race. However, it takes more than charisma to win. In 2014, with Democrats in retreat, an open House seat in NY-21 was well contested by the Green’s Matt Funiciello, who received 10.6% of the vote  (and 4.6% when he tried again in 2016). Nice showing, but Green Party spending in the 2014 race was only $35,000 according to the FEC (and $15,000 in 2016). Spending five figures on a House race isn’t going to cut it in NY-21.

Winning one of these seats takes more than a well spoken candidate; it takes a professional campaign, and that takes money.


Conclusion

We’re closing in on the end of congressional retirement season. By March 9 filing deadlines for 50% of house seats will have passed, and the number will hit 90% by the end of May. The strong anti-Republican current presents an opportunity. It’s time to buckle down and do the hard work of opposition politics: uniting and representing the people the powerful have left behind.

Want serious candidates? Run serious campaigns. Play to win.


Notes:
1 Fortunately for Republicans, they’ve been working hard to make sure the election comes out the way they want it to by suppressing votesgerrymandering, good ol’ FUD and obfuscation, and just getting plain lucky draw in terms of the Senate seats that appear on the schedule this year.^
2 What’s the difference between “will not seek reelection” and “no incumbent running”? Several members didn’t choose to retire, they resigned, mainly in the face of allegations of sexual misconduct. We make the distinction because 44 is the number widely reported, and comparable to previous years, but for our argument, we’re interested in all open seats. There were also some resignations for legitimate reasons, for example Tom Price left GA-06 to lead HHS for the illegitimate administration. These resignations mostly came early enough for a successor to be appointed, so these races do technically have an incumbent.
^
3 “Today, it is with a humble and thankful heart that I announce I will not be seeking reelection. While I have not yet determined a final resignation date, I will be leaving Congress by January 31, 2018. I have been presented with an opportunity to lead the Ohio Business Roundtable that will allow me to continue to work on public policy issues impacting Ohioans while also spending more time with my family.”
^
4 Come to think of it, that sounds pretty sweet. I’d like a job where I can focus 50% while pulling in $174k a year.
^
5That was in 2016, when the prevailing wisdom across the US was that partisan gerrymandering was one of the legitimate spoils of American politics.
^
6 Sourced from FEC data on Green Party spending for President, Senate, and House campaigns.
^

About The Author

Richard is a Seattle area data scientist who builds predictive models and the services that deliver them. He earned a PhD in Applied and Computational Math from Princeton University, and left academia for the dark side of science (industry) in 2010, following his wife to the land of flannel. Fan of coffee, beer, backpacking and puns. Enjoys a day on the lake fishing, and, better, cooking up the catch for a crowd.

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