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Moderate Republicans are D.C.'s new endangered species

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Sep 14 2017, 8:38am

Washington has a new endangered species: moderate Republicans in the House of Representatives. In just the past two weeks, GOP Reps. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, Dave Reichert of Washington, and Dave Trott of Michigan all announced plans to retire, boosting Democrats’ hopes of winning seats that were already competitive due to President Donald Trump’s low popularity.

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According to a CQ-Roll Call tally, seven House Republicans have decided to retire altogether, and another nine have decided to run for another office instead of for re-election.

Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to take the House of Representatives back — a tough lift in even the best political climate — but the recent departures have party operatives cautiously optimistic that more are coming.

Tyler Law, spokesman for the House Democrats’ campaign arm, said the committee was adding four vulnerable Republicans to its “retirement watch list” in the wake of the recent departures.

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“Any way you look at it, vulnerable Republicans are staring down the barrel of a miserable midterm election with healthcare repeal and a do-nothing Congress hanging over their heads,” he said in a statement.

Lonely moderates

Their reason for hope? It’s not much fun being a moderate Republican congressman in a swing district — especially not in the Trump era.

Even with full control of Washington, the GOP agenda has stalled. The Obamacare repeal failed, tax reform is in limbo, and last week President Donald Trump struck a deal with Democrats to fund the government for three months, blindsiding Republicans on Capitol Hill.

What’s worse, within their own party GOP moderates have been largely sidelined, treated as out of touch with the populist base Trump invigorated in 2016.

“It’s all about power, it’s not finding a solution to a problem.”

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In an interview with VICE News, Rep. Dave Reichert of Washington State described the less glamorous side of life as a congressman — sometimes eight hours of fundraising calls a day, constant flights back and forth from Washington, and little time with family — all to be met with increasing gridlock in Washington.

“I don’t think anybody who’s been here would say they’re not frustrated … I’m certainly frustrated by the fact that things don’t seem to be moving ahead to make the country better,” Reichert said.

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The seven-term Republican had what he described as a rough childhood before going to college to study social work and eventually getting into law enforcement. He served as a sheriff before he came to Congress, and said that experience — where right versus wrong was clear — was vastly different from his time as a lawmaker.

In Washington, “it’s all about power; it’s not finding a solution to a problem,” he said.

“You don’t want to solve the problem, because if you do that, that takes away the talking points for either side to bash the other side, to gain the upper hand, to gain the power to then force their agenda and not work with the other party. It’s like growing up in a family of domestic violence,” Reichert said, noting he himself was a victim of domestic violence.

Wary of Trump

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But Trump’s hold over a sizable portion of the GOP electorate remains strong, despite his dismal approval numbers nationwide. That may suggest why, even with Trump’s newfound willingness to make deals with Democrats and controversial comments weighing him down, many in the GOP are still treading lightly when it comes to criticizing the president — while still keeping enough distance to appeal to moderates who may be turned off by him.

Reichert seemed to walk that line in an interview, where he described Trump’s comments as personally distasteful — but carefully avoided laying any of the blame for the dysfunction in Washington at the president’s feet.

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Reichert said he never backed Trump during the election because as a former sheriff who investigated rape cases, Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comments revealed in a leaked “Access Hollywood” tape last October were too objectionable.

“I’m a cop through and through. You can never take that out of somebody,” he said. “When somebody says that — you know, those those recordings came out regarding sexual assaults. If the statute of limitations was still in existence, and he made those comments in King County, and you know it happened in King County, that’s a person that I would have to arrest.”

Reichert’s conscience

“There was no reasonable explanation for those words,” he said.

Asked whether Trump would then in his eyes be a criminal, Reichert acknowledged the comments were “sort of an admission of guilt from him.”

But with a potential gubernatorial run on the horizon, Reichert adamantly avoided pegging Trump with any of the blame for that increasing partisanship or the lack of activity on Capitol Hill.

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“My evaluation is he has a different communication style,” he said. “I don’t agree with the way that he’s phrased some of his comments. What’s in his heart, I don’t know. I don’t know if the man’s a prejudiced man or not. I don’t know him. But I know that he’s used some words that have indicated — that to me are troubling.”

And why put up with all that with the possibility of a primary threat — backed by your own president — looming?

While Reichert has managed to stay out of Trump’s crosshairs, Trump’s backers have put other moderates on notice, reportedly planning a primary challenge to Dent, who as a leader of the moderate group of House Republicans called the Tuesday Group, was one of Trump’s louder critics.

Since announcing his plans to retire, though, Dent has lashed out at Trump as a major source of congressional dysfunction.

“Since Donald Trump has become president, the litmus test is more Trump loyalty — are you loyal enough. But we still have this underlying fight between the pragmatists and the ideologues. In many respects, the ideologues have the upper hand,” Dent said on MSNBC.

But even those who don’t have a Trump target on their backs in the primary still have a Trump problem in the general. Trott, for instance, represents a district that went for Trump by just 5 points — and already, Democrats had recruited a strong challenger in Haley Stevens, who managed the auto bailout. So this week, Trott announced plans to retire.

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