If a blue wave materializes this fall, it could not only wipe out the GOP’s majority in the House, but could also knock out some of the party’s top members.
Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking woman in Republican leadership, is locked in a highly competitive race in her traditionally red district in eastern Washington, which was just rated as a “toss-up” by one election handicapper this week.
Two other members of lower leadership — Reps. Pete Sessions(Texas), chairman of the House Rules Committee, and Mimi Walters (Calif.), the sophomore class representative — are also fighting to hang on to their seats in competitive races in November's midterm elections.
A few senior Republicans eyeing leadership bids or committee gavels next year, including Small Business Committee Chairman Steve Chabot (Ohio) and senior GOP whip member Ann Wagner (Mo.), are also not in the clear in what’s shaping up as a tough year for the GOP.
Leaders are often tasked with helping rank-and-file members fundraise for their races, but the 2018 election cycle has seen some reversals.
In Washington, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has visited McMorris Rodgers's district to assist her with fundraising.
The Congressional Leadership Fund — a super PAC affiliated with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — also opened a field office in western Washington in early 2018 in an attempt to help her hold on to her seat.
Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based GOP strategist, said it’s an unusual situation since leaders are often in safe districts and are positioned to help more vulnerable members.
“Part of the responsibility you have being in leadership is … you have to put the team ahead of your own needs,” he said. “You spend a lot of time raising for other members. And that’s part of the reason you oftentimes don’t have vulnerable members in leadership, because they just can’t make that sacrifice.”
In this week’s Washington primary, in which candidates compete for the top two spots regardless of party to move on to the general election, McMorris Rodgers narrowly edged out the top Democrat, Lisa Brown, a professor and chancellor for Washington State University-Spokane.
“As soon as the Democratic establishment recruited Lisa Brown we knew it was going to be a more serious challenger and have taken the race seriously for the last year and a half,” a source familiar with McMorris Rodgers’s campaign strategy told The Hill.
While President Trump won the district by 13 points in 2016, McMorris Rogers was beating Brown by a little more than 500 votes, with some ballots still being counted.
Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball moved the race into the “toss-up” column this week, while the Cook Political Report rates it as "leaning Republican."
The McMorris Rodgers camp is projecting confidence, casting Brown as too liberal for the district while noting Trump’s victory in 2016.
“You've seen CMR post record-breaking fundraising totals across the board and be aggressive. At the end of the day, what they've recruited is a liberal candidate with a 20-year record in what is still a Republican district where President Trump is still popular,” said a source familiar with the campaign.
In the Dallas suburbs, Sessions, the Rules Committee chairman and a 20-year veteran of Congress, is fighting for his political life in a district that is tougher terrain for Republicans than McMorris Rodgers’s home base.
Sessions’s suburban and largely college-educated district voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, making it one of 23 such districts that represents a path for Democrats to win back the House majority. Cook lists the race as a "toss-up."
Walters — an up-and-coming Republican seen as a potential future leader who serves as the sophomore class's ambassador to House GOP leadership — is in a competitive race listed as “lean Republican” by the Cook Political Report.
The California Republican, who is also a deputy chair of the House GOP campaign arm, is facing off against progressive University of California, Irvine law professor Katie Porter in November in a district that Clinton won in 2016 by 5 points.
Chabot, who was first elected to Congress in 1993, lost a reelection race in 2008 and was later elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, is in a competitive race listed as “lean Republican” by Cook.
The Small Business chairman, who hopes to take the House Judiciary Committee gavel next year, was outraised in the last quarter by Democratic opponent Aftab Pureval.
Wagner, a senior member of the whip team, vice chair of fundraising for the House GOP’s campaign arm and dark horse candidate for House Speaker, has seen her race move to the outer edges of what is considered competitive. Cook lists it as "likely Republican."
What’s seen as a potentially competitive district is changing rapidly.
In Ohio this week, a GOP candidate narrowly held on to a district that Trump won by 11 points in 2016. The result has further unnerved Republicans, underlining the party’s challenges.
That’s also helped bring in the cavalry. Heritage Action is boosting 12 congressional districts held by Republicans, including Wagner’s, with a $2.5 million ad buy.
That level of support is one reason why a number of Republicans are publicly voicing confidence that many of these members will survive.
Sarah Chamberlain, the president and CEO of the Republican Mainstreet Partnership, said she thinks McMorris Rodgers and Walters will win.
“I have great confidence that both of them will be fine in November because they know how to run,” she said.