Hensarling Retirement:
Open Seat Effect

By Jim Ellis

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, (TX-5)

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, (TX-5)

Nov. 2, 2017 — House Financial Services Committee chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Dallas) announced Tuesday that he will not seek a ninth term in Congress next year to represent Texas, the timing coinciding with his internal term limit as the major committee’s leader. Hensarling was first elected in 2002 when then-incumbent Pete Sessions (R-Dallas) decided to jump to a new safe north Dallas Republican district leaving open this south Dallas-anchored seat, which, at the time, was politically marginal.

In that redistricting year, Hensarling, a former aide to Sen. Phil Gramm (R) before taking positions in the private sector with financial and energy producing companies, won the Republican nomination outright against four other GOP candidates, scoring 53 percent of the vote. He went on to record a 58-40 percent November victory, and would then average 73 percent over his seven re-election campaigns without ever being seriously challenged.

Texas’ 5th Congressional District now encompasses a substantial part of east Dallas County, including the city of Mesquite, before stretching southeast to annex five full counties and a partial one. After Dallas and Mesquite, the district’s largest population centers are the cities of Palestine, Jacksonville, and Athens.

President Trump tallied a 63-34 percent victory over Hillary Clinton here in 2016, following Mitt Romney’s similar 64-34 percent margin four years earlier. Even Sen. John McCain in President Obama’s first winning election posted a 62-37 percent spread within the TX-5 confines. Therefore, the district is solidly Republican and should not be hotly contested in next year’s general election campaign.

Hensarling’s departure means that 31 seats will be open for the coming regular election, 21 of which are Republican held. Democrats continually argue that Republican open seats are running ahead of pace for the coming cycle, but the actual numbers don’t completely support such a claim.

In 2016, 49 seats were open, 30 of which were from the Republican column. Two years prior, 47 districts were open and 38 came from the GOP. In 2012, counting 20 either new or incumbent-less seats that individual state redistricting maps created, 64 seats were open and 21 came from the Republicans. The 2010 cycle featured 43 open seats, 23 of which were in GOP control.

While plenty of time still exists for the number of retirements to grow in the current campaign, there is little to suggest that the final open Republican seat total will be greater than what we’ve witnessed over the past four election cycles.

The argument, however, is not how many seats are now, or will be, open after the various candidate filing periods close, but the true number of vulnerable at-risk districts becomes the more critical factor. From this perspective, the number of convertible open Republican seats is very low.

Of the current 21 open R seats, including Hensarling’s 5th District but excluding UT-3 that will have a new incumbent in the next week (Nov. 7 special election), only one is rated in the toss-up column: retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s (R-Miami) politically marginal South Florida CD (FL-27).

Looking at the five open GOP seats that we rate as Lean R: KS-2 (Lynn Jenkins), MI-11 (David Trott), NM-2 (Steve Pearce), PA-15 (Charlie Dent), and WA-8 (Dave Reichert), remember that the Republican candidate since 1978 has won cumulatively 86 percent of the time in these CDs (74 victories and 12 defeats in 86 congressional elections). In two of these redistricting-created seats, MI-11 (2002) and WA-8 (1982), no Democrat has ever won. The remaining four likely GOP open seats and the 12 safe R incumbent-less districts feature even stronger Republican voting histories.

Therefore, even though the number of open GOP seats is climbing, the party’s low vulnerability within this category remains constant.

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