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Another possible sign of GOP trouble? Powerful Republican House chairman announces retirement

House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said Monday that he will retire at the end of the year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

New Jersey GOP Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, announced Monday that he will retire at the end of this year.

The surprise announcement further underscored current Republican Party concerns of a possible Democratic wave in the 2018 midterm elections.

Why would Republicans be worried?

Frelinghuysen came to Washington, D.C., as part of the 1994 GOP wave election — the first midterm election of former President Bill Clinton's administration.

Though he arrived in Congress as part of a conservative movement, the New Jersey lawmaker has gained a reputation as a moderate in the House. Last year, he backed the bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, but he was one of 12 Republicans who voted against the GOP tax reform package in December. He's also a member of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership, which is made up largely of members from swing and Democratic-majority districts.

Frelinghuysen's positions have appeared — at least until recently — to sit well with his constituency. He has been easily re-elected to his seat from the reliably GOP 11th Congressional District in every election since 1994.

And this is why Republicans could see this announcement as troubling.

Frelinghuysen, 71, is serving in just his first term as chairman of the Appropriation Committee, which is a highly sought-after post in the House. He was eligible to keep his chairmanship through 2020, The Hill noted, but yet is giving up the post early. His retirement announcement did not name any specific reasons for his decision, such as health concerns or family matters, and he has not been part of any reported scandals.

However, as political watchers have pointed out, he was facing his toughest re-election fight since coming to Washington.

Democrats were already touting the campaign of former Navy pilot, Annapolis grad, and former federal prosecutor, Mikie Sherrill, and now believe they have a real chance to pick up this seat that Republicans have held since the 1980s.

Evan Lukaske, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of the House Democrats, said his party sees Frelinghuysen’s seat as a "very competitive" one that the party is confident "will turn blue next November.”

The Cook Political Report rated Frelinghuysen’s district as a "toss up" for 2018 even before Monday's announcement, and the district, with its longtime Republican roots, could be a bellwether.

Though general polling has improved for the GOP of late, Democrats still have a significant advantage in generic congressional polling. The latest RealClear Politics average shows the Democrats currently holding a nearly eight-point advantage — 46.7 to 38.8 — over Republicans in national surveys.

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