WASHINGTON — House GOP leaders warned their rank-and-file members Tuesday of the potential for heavy midterm losses next year that could cost Republicans their majority, and they urged renewed attention and focus to a positive agenda and message.
The warning was aimed at encouraging lawmakers to stay focused and not be “chasing all the different other shiny objects,” according to Republican Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina.
It comes a week ahead of a special election in Georgia, where Democrats are spending heavily to contest what should be a safe Republican seat. The outcome will be seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump and whether Democrats can capitalize on the excitement of their base to get wins in GOP-leaning districts next year.
House leaders reminded lawmakers that historically the president’s party loses 30-plus House seats in first-term midterms, according to members present. Democrats need to pick up 24 seats to take the House. GOP leaders issued their warning in a closed-door meeting held away from the Capitol so they could discuss politics and fundraising, which are not supposed to be mixed with official business under ethics rules.
“The ’18 cycle is going to be our first real test out of the box after a change in administration so we have to do our jobs, we need to be fundamentally sound, we need to have our game face on every day and we need to be developing the right resources,” said Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas, a leadership ally. “The message from leadership, and I think it’s a very appropriate message, is we aren’t going to take anything for granted.”
There is concern among Republicans over the outcome next week in the Georgia district previously held by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. The district has long been in GOP hands, but Democrats are pouring in resources to try to get a win for their neophyte candidate, Jon Ossoff, over Republican Karen Handel. It’s become the most expensive House race in history.
In Tuesday’s meeting lawmakers were shown polling data indicating the race was tied, they said. They claimed optimism even as they argued a GOP loss in Georgia shouldn’t be over-interpreted. Republicans also suffered a near-loss recently in a special election in heavily Republican Montana, although their candidate ended up winning even after a last-minute assault charge.
“If we don’t win the seat I don’t know that it qualifies as a sign of what’s to come, it could be an outlier,” Womack said of the Georgia race.
The House GOP focus on the looming midterm struggle comes with scrutiny of the Trump administration over Russia connections at a fever pitch. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was testifying Tuesday afternoon on Capitol Hill, and Republicans have been struggling to stay focused on their agenda and draw attention to it.
Thus far, they have not realized their marquee goals of passing major health care or tax legislation, but argue they aren’t getting the attention and credit they should for smaller yet still significant bills like one on reforming the Veterans Affairs administration that the House is passing this week.
“Let’s put this all in perspective. We are focused on solving people’s problems,” House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said Tuesday when asked about scuttlebutt that the president could be considering firing the special prosecutor on the Russia investigation.
“I’m not saying this isn’t important. These investigations are important. They need to be independent. They need to be thorough. They need to go where the facts go,” Ryan said. “But we also have a duty to serve the people that elected us to fix the problems that they’re confronting in their daily lives, and that’s what we’re doing.”