By Paul Steinhauser
Published September 15, 2019
House Republicans are facing a steep climb to regain the majority in 2020, as mounting retirements in the party complicate their efforts to wrest the gavel from Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But they may have been given a political gift this past week when Democrats doubled down on their pursuit of an impeachment investigation against President Trump.
The move came after Republicans already were enjoying a dose of good news on the congressional campaign front: the party's narrow win in the special congressional election in North Carolina. The National Republican Congressional Committee touted that the “victory is yet another sign that congressional Republicans are poised to take back the majority.”
A day later, the House Judiciary Committee took a step with potentially bigger implications -- approving a resolution defining the panel's impeachment probe, in the first official vote on the matter.
More than half of Democratic lawmakers in the House support launching impeachment proceedings. Yet considering the GOP-controlled Senate is unlikely to act on any possible impeachment articles from the House, moderate Democrats in the House loudly warned that their colleagues are walking into a political trap.
Those facing tough reelections next year in districts Trump captured in 2016 specifically raised flags that impeachment could hurt the party’s efforts to defend its 235-199 majority (there’s one independent House member) in the chamber.
Democratic Rep. Anthony Brindisi told Fox News on Thursday that he’s concerned. “I’m worried that as the investigation ramps up, it takes up time from other issues.”
And the congressman – who represents a red district – said he “would vote no [on impeachment], unless there is something compelling that comes out.”
Rep. Donna Shalala of Florida, who flipped her Miami area district from red to blue in last year’s midterm elections, told reporters that impeachment is “sucking the air out of all the good stuff that we’re doing.”
And she warned that it’s “difficult” for House Democrats to focus on issues crucial to their voters “given the platform.” Shalala spotlighted that she only fielded four impeachment questions during a total of 11 town halls in her district during the recent congressional recess.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii – who doesn’t support impeachment – cautioned last week that “it’s important for us to think about what is in the best interest of the country and the American people.”
And in an interview on "Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren," the Democratic presidential candidate argued that “continuing to pursue impeachment is something that I think will only further tear our country apart.”
While Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler pledged “an aggressive series of hearings” and said his panel’s conducting an impeachment inquiry, Pelosi and other Democratic House leaders – mindful of more moderate members facing challenging reelections – have largely refrained from using that terminology. Speaking with reporters, Pelosi avoided using the term “impeachment inquiry.”
While the Judiciary Committee’s move could be a gift to the House GOP, a national Democratic strategist who works on House races cautioned that “Republicans are getting ahead of themselves if they think 2020 is going to be decided on the basis of impeachment.”
The strategist, who asked for anonymity to speak more freely, said: “I don’t think the American public’s perception has really shifted. If you ask the average voter, I don’t think they’re differentiating between what the Judiciary Committee was doing last week and what they’re doing this week. That’s very, very insider and probably half the people in D.C. that you talk to wouldn’t even be able to tell you the difference. I think that they’re reading too much into that.”
The Judiciary Committee vote comes with 15 House Republicans now heading for the exit door in 2020. And only two of those GOP lawmakers are launching statewide bids for governor or senator. The rest are truly retiring. That’s a switch from two years ago – when at the same point in the 2018 cycle, nine of the 14 House Republicans not running for reelection were bidding for higher office. The Democrats, thanks to a 40-seat pickup in the midterms, regained the majority after eight years as backbenchers.
By contrast, only four House Democrats so far this cycle have said they’re not running for reelection.
“For many of these Republicans, it’s the first time being in the minority and being in the minority in the House is a tough place to be. You have to be responsive to an ever-present president and defend him, which is not fun,” noted Ty Matsdorf, a veteran Democratic strategist who recently served as independent expenditure director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Looking at the recent spate of GOP House retirements, Matsdorf said: “It’s always a good indicator of more to come when you see waves like this, because it tells you that there’s something systemically wrong.”
And Matsdorf predicted that between now and January we’ll see the “bulk of the rest of the Republican retirements.”
Longtime Republican strategist Colin Reed concurred that “nobody likes being in the minority. It’s just a reality of life.”
And he noted that “typically when the control of the lower chambers switches hands, you can see an exodus of retirements in the ensuing years as former chairs get used to life as ranking members of the minority.”
Reed acknowledged that “it’s indisputable that the retirements in recent weeks have not been helpful to the Republican cause.” He argued that the party reclaiming the majority remains unlikely.
Only a handful of the House GOP retirements are in swing districts, however. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican, told reporters on Friday, "Let me be very frank. I'm not concerned about any retirement."
He then added one exception -- retiring Rep. Will Hurd of Texas. Democrats are eyeing the seat as a potential pickup.
McCarthy spoke three days after Republican Dan Bishop’s victory Tuesday in a special election in North Carolina, which was touted by pundits as a bellwether of things to come in 2020, gave the GOP a much-needed boost.
But his narrow margin over Democrat Dan McCready in a district where the GOP has a distinct advantage didn’t erase fears that House Republicans are still facing fierce headwinds in 2020.
Matsdorf argued that if Bishop had lost, it would have sparked a flood of House GOP retirements. He noted that the Republican victory in the special election “will slow the retirements, but not completely because this is a Republican seat.”
Reed downplayed the impact of the contest, saying he “hesitates to place much emphasis on special elections. I think political prognosticators make too much of extrapolating outcomes of special elections.”
Fox News' Chad Pergram contributed to this report.