Democrats could hardly contain their joy at the unexpected retirement announcement by Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on Sunday, and even Republicans had to admit it will be hard for them to hold that Miami-area seat in 2018.
Ros-Lehtinen, a moderate Republican, has cut a particularly independent profile as the rest of her party raced to the right. Her heavily Democratic district backed Hillary Clinton by 20 percentage points in November, and Republicans who know the district well questioned whether another GOP candidate could thread that needle.
"It puts this seat in serious risk for Republicans," said Ana Navarro, a Miami-based GOP strategist who considers Ros-Lehtinen a friend. "This is my district. Other than Ileana, who is so liked, she got a pass from GOP voters for being a moderate and got a pass from Democrats for being a Republican, I cannot think of one likely candidate who can win, both a GOP primary and the general election."
Democrats were already strategizing about how to make inroads in the more than 20 Republican-held congressional districts that Clinton won as they plot a course aimed at re-taking the Congress. They need to win 24 seats in 2018 to win back a House majority, and even before Ros-Lehtinen's retirement news, Democratic operatives were predicting a big midterm election year, thanks to President Donald Trump's low approval ratings and the challenges that the president's party historically faces in midterm elections.
In April, the party nearly won two special election House seats -- in Kansas and Georgia -- in districts Republican candidates won by more than 20 points in last year's election.
"For years, Democrats have coveted this seat that is fundamentally Democratic in its DNA, but the congresswoman was independent and untouchable," said Jesse Ferguson, a former top official at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It's going to be beyond tough for a Republican candidate, who has to own Donald Trump in this district. "
Indeed, current officials running that committee, whose mission is to win House races, boldly predicted a Democratic takeover of Ros-Lehtinen’s seat in November 2018.
“It's been clear for years that the Republican party was out of step with the values of Miami families, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s retirement announcement is testament to the fact she recognized how wide that gap had grown,” said DCCC spokesman Cole Leiter. “As one of the most Democratic districts held by a Republican Representative, this district was always going to be competitive. Now it is all but guaranteed to be won by a Democrat who will finally provide the hard working people who live there the representation they deserve.”
“As more vulnerable Republicans recognize the distance between their party and their districts, this retirement could well be the first of many,” Leiter said.
Non-partisan analysts also said Sunday that the 27th District race is one Democrats should now win. Kyle Kondik, a congressional race handicapper at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, moved the race from "likely Republican" to "leans Democrat."
"This is a huge early break for House Dems," Kondik wrote on Twitter. "But this is also a must-win seat now for the majority."
Vincent Foster, the president of the Log Cabin Republicans of Miami-- a major gay-rights Republican group -- said the community was losing a "great ally" in Congress, and acknowledged that Ros-Lehtinen may have been a uniquely good fit for the district, in a way that could be hard to replicate.
"As a Cuban, as a mother of a trans son, as a big supporter of the Jewish community, a big supporter of the pro-Israel issue, she really stands for all of those issues her constituents and a lot of Miami stand for," Foster said. "So it's going to be hard for somebody who can fit those roles and be so genuine in all of those convictions."
He expressed hope that the GOP would field a credible candidate, though no names immediately came to mind.
"There's going to be a void right now, and trying to find someone who's right on LGBT issues, and going to be so strong on them to replace her-- Democrats have been gunning for her spot for years, raising millions of dollars as well, especially in the last campaign," he said.
Still, Republicans quickly and easily acknowledged that, given Clinton's double-digit win over Trump in the district, a decent Democrat candidate would be formidable.
"If Clinton carried that district with her liabilities, her baggage, in what was basically a Trump wave in Florida, then after Trump's performance in office, you would think a credible Democratic candidate would be able to do very well," said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime GOP operative and lobbyist in Florida, and a frequent Trump critic.
Asked for comment on the retirement, the National Republican Congressional Committee offered a statement from the committee's chairman, Steve Stivers.
"Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is simply a force of nature," Stivers said. "Her tireless work ethic was only matched by her charismatic personality. She represented her South Florida district well and she will be dearly missed in Washington. I wish her and her family the best."