Matheson's retirement makes it more difficult for Dems to retake the House this cycle.
Matheson’s retirement makes it more difficult for Dems to retake the House this cycle.

A spate of recent retirements have altered the battle for the House at the margins but have not changed the basic arithmetic of 2014.  Democrats need 17 seats to gain the majority and no clear path has appeared for them to do so.  This as Republicans have retired in several left or rightward leaning seats.  Most notably the retirements of Rep. Tom Latham (IA-3), Jon Runyan (NJ-3) and Jim Gerlach (PA-6) have buoyed Democratic hopes.  Both Latham’s and Runyan’s districts went narrowly for Obama in 2012 while Gerlach’s suburban Philly district backed Romney with a mere 51%.

Despite these retirements however Democrats have been slammed with their own slate of retirements.  Most damaging for the party were the retirements of Congressman Jim Matheson (UT-4) and Jim McIntyre (NC-7).  Both seats went heavily for Romney in 2012 and are almost guaranteed to swing to the GOP this cycle. Most recently, Congressman Bill Owens in the upper New York based 21st CD announced his retirement after two terms.  The district went narrowly for Obama in 2012 but Republicans have coalesced around a strong nominee and the area has a strong local GOP to help with turnout efforts.

Democrats might be encouraged by what they are seeing in the open 13rd CD in Florida.  Longtime Rep. CW Bill Young’s death opened up the seat.  Democrats have former 2010 gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink while Republicans just finished up their primary and selected former Young aide David Jolly. Democrats have a cash advantage and with the general in March it does not give the GOP much time to catch up.  That said, the demographics of the district, becoming more diverse, still favor the GOP as it is older and whiter than most suburban districts.  Both parties plan to use the district to test national messages and trumpet or downplay expectations for 2014.

Yet even if Democrats win FL-13 they will still need 16 seats to regain the majority and this seat would be another competitive seat they need to defend. This gain must be made in the face of likely losses in conservative districts, a public unhappy with Obamacare and a President with 40% approval ratings.  Democrats also have a number of endangered seats with incumbents to defend.  In Arizona, Ann Kirkpatrick and Ron Barber are endangered as strong GOP nominees wait in the wings.  In California, Ami Bera has to defend his suburban San Francisco district with large pockets of rural voters.  Scott Peters in his suburban San Diego district faces an openly gay Republican in his reelection bid and Raul Ruiz’s district is majority Hispanic but high white turnout could offset this advantage.

Elsewhere Republicans are optimistic about their chances in several Illinois districts as well as Maine’s newly open 2nd CD.  In Illinois, the GOP plans to target Bill Enyart and Cheri Bustos who represent urban/suburban districts that include conservative and union territory.  Republicans also plan to make a bid for now Senator Mark Kirk’s old seat, hitting Brad Schneider in the only competitive suburban Chicago district left in the state.  In Maine’s open 2nd district the GOP hopes Mike Michaud’s run for Governor will allow a moderate nominee to emerge and steal the seat.

Admittedly Democrats have plenty of their own opportunities.  Suburban districts as well as several largely rural but unionized districts give them some leverage to play offense.  But this will come in the shadow of a still sputtering economy and an unpopular Health law.  Even progressives in polls have shown dissatisfaction with their party and the President.  Combined with the Senate map this means Democrats may simply be forced to play more defense than offense.

Of course much can change over the course of the next 10 months.  It is unlikely the basic fundamentals that favor the GOP will shift however.  The President’s approval is unlikely to bump up, red state Democrats are likely to run as far way from their party as possible and Democratic base voters are likely to be unmotivated to show up in the midterm.  All this points to Republicans holding the House and perhaps adding to their majority.

Update: Longtime California Congressman Buck McKeon’s retirement in CA-25 offers Democrats another pick-up opportunity though Republicans have better candidates vying to replace McKeon.  The district is split between the San Diego suburbs and exurbs and narrowly went for John McCain and Mitt Romney.  This district may be comparable to PA-6 with a slight Republican tilt that Democrats may find this cycle might be to much to change.


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