By Mike Lillis and Scott Wong - 10-26-16 06:01 AM EDT
Two weeks ahead of the Nov. 8 elections, a handful of hardened House Republicans find themselves in a rare position: They're fighting for their political lives.
Reps. Darrell Issa of California, John Mica of Florida and Scott Garrett of New Jersey - former or sitting panel chairmen who all represent suburban areas - are heading into the final leg of the campaign in toss-up races that could eliminate 54 years of Capitol Hill experience in a single night.
The surprising vulnerability of such seasoned incumbents has left GOP campaign strategists scrambling to defend long-held seats - and preserve their comfortable House majority - against an eleventh-hour threat that's only been stoked by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's divisive rhetoric and deteriorating campaign.
Smelling blood, Democrats have pounced, sensing an opportunity to pick up seats considered safe just a few months ago - and pick off a few longtime Republicans in the process.
"They have it in for both Darrell and I," Mica said in a Tuesday phone interview. "We're two senior members on the Oversight Committee, and "I'm sure we've been a thorn in the Obama administration's side. This is their time for retribution."
For Democrats, Issa is perhaps the most enticing target. As head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2011 to 2015, the fiery eight-term conservative was charged with checking the Obama White House on a host of issues related to both politics and policy.
He approached the role with gusto, leading prominent investigations into the IRS, the 2012 Benghazi attacks and the Justice Department's "Fast and Furious" gunrunning operation, which resulted in Issa and the Republicans voting to hold then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.
The high-profile role helped him in his suburban San Diego district. But this cycle, election handicappers say Trump is a liability for all Republicans in the diverse state of California, even as GOP strategists maintain that individual lawmakers won't be harmed by the top of the ticket.
Issa has struggled to balance his support for Trump with his condemnation of certain incendiary remarks by the GOP nominee.
"Democrats have been pushing the idea that safe Republicans are in jeopardy in an attempt to distract from the fact that they failed to recruit viable candidates in the competitive seats they needed to win in order to gain back the majority," Katie Martin, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), said Tuesday.
But that message hasn't stopped Issa's challenger, retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate, and the Democrats. On Tuesday, the party's campaign arm launched yet another ad slamming Issa, this time for sticking by Trump as sexual harassment allegations rock his campaign.
"Even after Trump bragged about a history of sexual assault ... Issa refused to walk away from him," the ad's narrator says.
Mica is another seasoned Republican in a tough reelection fight. The former Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, 73, was first elected to the House in 1992, the same year that Bill Clinton won the White House.
But court-ordered redistricting has made his once heavily Republican district in the Orlando area more diverse and more favorable to Democrats in the years since. And his challenger, 38-year-old newcomer Stephanie Murphy, has been pounding Mica as an entrenched politician who's been in Washington too long.
"Times change, but John Mica went to Washington over 30 years ago," Murphy says in a new TV ad that flashes images of a record player, boombox, Walkman and iPhone. "It's time for a new approach."
Murphy, who is backed by national Democrats, has an inspiring story. Her family fled from communist Vietnam when she was a baby and was rescued by a U.S. Navy ship. Later, after the 9/11 attacks, she joined the Defense Department as a national security specialist. She's now an executive at an investment company and is leading Democratic internal polls by a few points.
But Mica has attacked Murphy as an empty suit recruited by leaders in D.C. only after several more prominent local Democrats passed on the race. And, he noted, she changed her voter registration from "no party" to become a Democrat earlier this summer.
"She's a straw candidate put up by [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi and the Democratic leadership," Mica said.
Pushing against those Democratic polls, Mica's team released its own survey showing nearly 50 percent of likely voters back the former chairman, while 41 percent support Murphy. That was after those surveyed were asked negative questions about each candidate.
"I have taken eight weeks of battering that very few politicians could withstand. Go take a look - it's $3 million in negative ads," Mica said from Melao Bakery, a Puerto Rican bakery in Orlando. "We've just begun to fight. And we're now launching our campaign. ... We took some broadsides, but now we're in the game. Now we're firing back.
"My goal is to make them spend $5 million but not defeat me, so that they divert that money from other races."
But national Republicans aren't taking any chances. A GOP source said the NRCC this week reserved $1.4 million in TV ads backing Mica in the Orlando market, the first time this cycle the campaign group is spending big in the 7th District.
"Stephanie Murphy is the mystery candidate," a narrator says in a new NRCC ad that launched Wednesday. "But her mentor is not a mystery. It's Nancy Pelosi."
Garrett, who heads the Financial Services subcommittee focused on capital markets, represents the northern tip of New Jersey, a well-educated region that's largely a New York City suburb. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the district by roughly 3 points in 2012, but election forecasters predict Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has the demographic upper hand, posing a challenge to the seven-term Garrett.
Josh Gottheimer, Garrett's Democratic opponent, is a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton and a prolific fundraiser. He's raised roughly $4 million through the cycle - a record for the state - and the House Majority PAC, a Democratic political action committee, has spent another $2.2 million targeting Garrett.
A member of the staunchly conservative Freedom Caucus, Garrett sparked a firestorm of controversy in 2015 when he refused to contribute campaign dues to the NRCC over the party's support of gay candidates.
A year later, Democrats haven't forgotten the episode, mentioning it in a new ad out Tuesday.
The House Majority PAC launched the spot, hitting Garrett as out-of-touch for his votes against an expansion of healthcare benefits for 9/11 first responders and aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy.
"Scott Garrett: the anti-gay bigot who puts his own agenda before New Jersey," the narrator reads.
A Garrett campaign spokesperson had no comment.
But Gottheimer spokesman Ryan Jacobs said Trump's provocative campaign is helping Democrats.
He pointed, in particular, to the 2005 "Access Hollywood" recording, published earlier this month by The Washington Post, in which Trump boasts of groping and kissing women without consent and without repercussions.
"Those comments started a conversation about what [Garrett] really stands for," Jacobs said.