When Rep. Charlie Dent (R) of Pennsylvania announced in September that he would not seek reelection next year, political pundits speculated this might be an early sign of trouble for Republicans. His seat, which Congressman Dent has held for seven terms, would become a target for Democrats in their march to take over the House of Representatives in 2018.
Since Dent’s announcement, a slew of Republicans have followed suit. Reasons for leaving the House vary. Some plan to seek higher office back home or run for the Senate. Some are getting timed out of their chairmanships by party term limits. And some, like Dent, are tired of the dysfunction and division, and are ready for life after Congress.
But hovering in the background is the knowledge that the president’s party historically loses seats in the first midterms after a presidential election – and a growing concern that a controversial president such as Donald Trump might intensify those losses.
Tuesday’s state and local electoral gains for Democrats magnified that concern. Dent called it a “horrible night” for Republicans, with county losses in the suburban collar around Philadelphia and in his own district. He chalked part of it up to historical norms and part of it to anti-Trump fervor. In an interview, the congressman, who co-chairs the moderate “Tuesday Group” of House Republicans, said he now sees his district – which Trump won by 8 points – moving from leaning-Republican to a toss-up. Dent did not vote for Trump.
Yet it’s one thing for Democrats to win in blue states – as happened with Tuesday’s big gubernatorial wins in Virginia and New Jersey – or to reclaim from Republicans suburban districts that Hillary Clinton won, which was the case in many of the Virginia statehouse races.
It's quite another to take back the House. Democrats will need to make inroads in areas that went for Trump – like Dent’s district. This is even more true in the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim two-seat majority, but where Democrats are defending many more seats in 2018, and in mostly red states to boot.
“What we still haven’t seen is a key Democratic victory in a Trump-leaning district, and I think that needs to happen to signal a larger wave,” says Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the independent Inside Elections. So far, he says, Republicans are winning in Republican areas, and Democrats in Democrat areas.
Others analysts agree. While the numbers in the House look tantalizing for Democrats – they need 24 seats to take control, and 23 of those seats are in districts that Mrs. Clinton won – they’re not likely to win all 23 of those Clinton districts, says Kyle Kondik, of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia. Incumbents are often hard to beat.
Mr. Kondik estimates Democrats will need to win about 10 districts that went for Trump – and “that’s a challenge,” he says.
The Virginia gubernatorial election results show why: Even though Democrat Ralph Northam trounced Ed Gillespie by 54 percent to 45 percent overall, “in a lot of rural parts of the state, Gillespie did fine," Kondik notes. "It’s just in the big cities and suburbs that he got crushed.”
Even so, some Democrats on the Hill are sensing a wave, while many Republicans are nervous.
“I’ve been worried since the day after the  election,” Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma told reporters on Wednesday, referring to the historic pattern of losses that typically accrue to the president’s party.
Congressman Cole saw Tuesday’s elections as “a warning shot” that Republicans in Congress aren’t getting enough done. It increases the pressure on the party to pass tax reform, he said, adding, “I take it as much as a congressional failure as I do a shot at the president.”
The outlook for a tax overhaul remains uncertain, with House and Senate Republicans working on different versions and dealing with different dynamics. Some House Republicans from wealthy high-tax states have already stated their opposition to eliminating or reducing certain individual deductions, particularly those for state and local taxes. Many of these members occupy the types of suburban districts that Democrats hope to win back.
Senate Republicans seem more concerned with the deficit, and Thursday unveiled a proposal that eliminates the state-and-local tax deduction.
“They’re in a pretzel,” says Senate minority leader Charles Schumer (D) of New York, talking with reporters on Wednesday. Democrats – and independent analysts – maintain that the House GOP plan would mostly benefit the wealthy and big corporations, and that many middle-income families would actually see their taxes increase over the long run. Republicans say it is squarely focused on the middle class, pointing out that the average American household will get a tax break of $1,182, and arguing that economic growth unleashed by the plan's corporate tax cuts would increase wages and jobs.
Senator Schumer says the current political climate reminds him of the run-up to the 2006 midterms, when he led the Democratic campaign to retake the Senate. “By the end of 2005, we were smelling a wave,” he says, adding: “We’re getting the same feelings now,” though “it's not there yet.”
Schumer points to indicators such as strong Democratic candidates, party unity, winning in places they had not previously won, and GOP infighting.
Until this week, the point about Democratic unity might have seemed laughable, given the vicious infighting on public display in the wake of a critical book by longtime Democratic operative Donna Brazile, who essentially accused the Democratic National Committee of working with the Clinton campaign to help Clinton secure the party's nomination. For now, Tuesday's electoral wins appear to have helped smooth over party divisions. Meanwhile, former Trump strategist Steve Bannon is working mightily to challenge GOP incumbents.
The open-seat factor
One of the biggest factors helping Democrats in 2018 may be the Republican retirements. Of course, many retiring Republicans are from safe seats – such as Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia, whose decision not to run again, just announced Thursday, coincides with the end of his chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee. But others, such as retiring Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R) of New Jersey, hail from districts that present real opportunities for Democrats – opportunities that might not have existed had the incumbents decided to run.
Dent says he believes that Tuesday’s elections will spark even more retirement announcements, as Republicans look at the mood in their districts.
That said, not all Democrats are as giddy as Schumer. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D) of Illinois, whose district went narrowly for Trump while she trounced her competitor by 20 points, says suburbs and urban areas will not be enough. Democrats will have to show up in areas that they have largely ignored, she says, and stay focused on an economic message that's not just anti-Trump.
A lot could happen between now and next November, Congresswoman Bustos points out. A star athlete in college, she looks at elections through a sports lens. Tuesday, she says, “was just one game.” If you want to take the tournament, “you’ve got to keep winning, and winning, and winning.”