On the surface, the recent slew of House Republican retirements from competitive districts should boost Democrats’ hopes of winning the majority in 2014.
But a closer look at these newly open seats shows that House Democrats haven’t caught a big break — at least not yet.
Two longtime House Democrats announced retirements on Wednesday, and one of those departures — Rep. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina — will surely hand his seat to the GOP. House Democrats must win a net of 17 seats to take the speaker’s gavel, and retirements so far have only offered the minority limited hope of accomplishing that.
Twelve House members have announced their retirements so far without seeking other office — nine Republicans, and three Democrats. President Barack Obama won only three of those districts in 2012, plus the vacant 13th District in Florida.
Democrats plan to shift their focus to the open-seat races created by moderate Republican retirements in a smattering of districts across the country.
“For us as a party, to be fighting for House seats in places that Barack Obama won or barely lost is always going to be better than fighting for places where Romney won big,” said Democratic consultant Travis Lowe, a former top Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee aide.
But even those districts mark difficult opportunities for Democrats — at least in a midterm cycle. The party’s top pickup opportunities in open seats currently are:
• Florida’s 13th District special election. Republicans have a primary, and Democrats have a strong candidate who’s also a prolific fundraiser in this quickly approaching March 11 contest.
• Iowa’s 3rd District. Obama won this district by 4 points, and Democrats had already coalesced behind a recruit to challenge now-retiring GOP Rep. Tom Latham.
• New Jersey’s 3rd District. Obama won this district with 52 percent. Democrats already have a recruit here; meanwhile Republicans are battling a perennial conservative, Steve Lonegan, who could spoil the GOP’s chances of keeping the seat.
• Virginia’s 10th District. Obama lost this district by a small margin, but the demographics of the district favor Democrats more each cycle.
Democrats could also shoot for another recently open seat in southeastern Pennsylvania — that of GOP Rep. Jim Gerlach. But without presidential-cycle turnout, Democrats face an uphill campaign in a district Mitt Romney carried with a 3-point margin.
By comparison, McIntyre and another Blue Dog retiree, Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah, are leaving districts that will be slam dunks for Republicans to pick up in 2014. Romney carried those districts by 19 percent and 40 percent margins, respectively.
“Two seats just evaporated for them. So basically they need 19 seats rather than 17,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Daniel Scarpinato. “That’s a significant increase when you look at the overall playing field.”
To be sure, Election Day is still months away — plenty of time for the national mood to shift toward Democrats. But the White House’s problematic second term and a rocky rollout of the new health care law spell trouble for Democrats at this point in the cycle.
There might be many more House retirements still to come as well — if history is precedent. In 2012, 25 House members retired without seeking higher office, according to a Roll Call tally. In 2010, 19 House members retired without seeking higher office.
“I think you see these retirements on both sides. Yes, you try to keep the seats but people are realistic about party performance,” Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg said. “I don’t think this is unusual. We’ve had multiple cycles in a row with big waves of retirements.”
Many of these open-seat opportunities are in districts that include some of the most expensive media markets in the country.
For example, Virginia’s 10th District includes the expensive Washington, D.C., media market, while retiring Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., and Gerlach represented districts that include the pricey Philadelphia airwaves. These districts cost $5 million to $10 million each to run competitive campaigns, operatives from both parties estimated.
There is good news for Democrats on that front — and maybe in future cycles as well. The DCCC starts the year off with an $8 million cash-on-hand advantage over the NRCC.
What’s more, presidential-year turnout helps Democrats in many of these newly open seats. If they are not successful this cycle, Democrats might have a better shot at these districts in 2016.
For example, Democrats could benefit from increased turnout in Iowa’s largest city, Des Moines, in a presidential year in the 3rd District. Turnout increases in other urban areas as well — that could help Democrats in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Of course, these seats will probably not be open opportunities in 2016 — regardless of whether Democrats have won them.