POLITICS: Campaigns

House retirements, on balance, slightly favor Republicans

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Congress,Michael Barone,2014 Elections,Campaigns

As the election year begins, some members of Congress are starting to announce they will retire rather than run for re-election. Three recent announcements came from Republicans representing relatively marginal districts.

John Runyan, New Jersey 3: This South Jersey district, fanning out east of the Delaware River to the Jersey Shore, was represented by Democrat John Adler, who lost to National Football League veteran Runyan in 2010. Runyan was reelected against Adler's widow in 2012, even as Barack Obama was carrying the district 52 percent-48 percent. This seems certain to be a Democratic target this fall.

Frank Wolf, Virginia 10: When Wolf first won this district in 1980 by beating three-term Democratic incumbent Joe Fisher, the district was centered on Arlington County and close-in Fairfax County. In redistrictings it has moved further west, including only a small portion of Fairfax County and extending into the Shenandoah Valley, even as Northern Virginia has become much more Democratic. Mitt Romney carried the district in 2012, but by only a 50 percent-49 percent margin. One likely Republican candidate is Delegate Barbara Comstock, who has run ahead of party lines in her Fairfax County district. Democrats, fresh from sweeping all three statewide offices in Virginia's 2013 state election, will surely target the seat.

Jim Gerlach, Pennsylvania 6: Gerlach won several very close races in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008, as the Philadelphia suburbs trended Democratic; he won more easily in 2010 and, after the Republican legislature drew a particularly convoluted redistricting plan, in 2012. Mitt Romney carried the current district 51 percent-48 percent. This seems likely to be a Democratic target in 2014.

On Wednesday came the announcement that two Democratic members are retiring, following an earlier announcement from Utah’s Jim Matheson.

Jim Matheson, Utah 4: Matheson is from a well-known and highly respected Utah Democratic family; his father, Scott Matheson, was elected governor in 1976 and 1980, the last Democrat to win that office in Utah. Jim Matheson has run far ahead of party lines, but in 2012, when Mitt Romney was carrying the district 68 percent-30 percent, Matheson was reelected by only 48.8 percent-48.5 percent against Haitian-American Republican Mia Love. Love is running again and looks like an overwhelming favorite to win in November.

Mike McIntyre, North Carolina 7: This East Carolina district is historically Democratic but has trended Republican in recent years. In 2012 McIntyre won reelection by only 50 percent-49 percent against Republican David Rouzer. Mitt Romney carried the district 59 percent-40 percent and it seems likely to be a Republican pickup in 2014.

Carolyn McCarthy, New York 4: This district in Nassau County in Long Island is historically Republican, but has trended Democratic in recent decades as its ethnic composition has changed, with increasing Hispanic and black populations. But there has also been a Republican trend in the heavily Jewish Five Towns near Kennedy airport, as Orthodox Jews form a larger share of the population there. The district voted 56 percent-43 percent for Barack Obama in 2014. McCarthy has held the district since 1996 and was reelected 62 percent-32 percent in 2012 against Republican Fran Becker, with Conservative party nominee Frank Scaturro, a former Senate Judiciary Committee aide, winning 6 percent.

Becker is connected to the Nassau County Republican machine, which recruited and supported him in the 2010 and 2012 primaries against Scaturro. Nassau County has had a powerful Republican machine since the years before World War II; Dwight Eisenhower’s Republican National Chairman Leonard Hall was a machine leader in the 1950s. It has run a big-spending county government and it has tended to control Republican (and Conservative) party nominations thanks in large part to county government patronage employees who depend on the machine for their jobs.

Scaturro has argued that he would be a vigorous candidate and that the machine supported Becker only because it did not want a Republican congressman not beholden to it. Becker beat Scaturro by only 55 percent-45 percent in the light turnout June 2012 primary, while Scaturro beat Becker 253-194 (that's actual votes, not percentages) in the simultaneous Conservative primary. Scaturro is running again and, given his 2012 showing, has a serious chance to win the Republican as well as Conservative nomination this year. Democrats surely hope to retain the seat and hope that the problems of Obamacare will not change its leanings much from where they were in 2012, but this could be a much more seriously contested seat than it was that year.

Bottom line: Republicans seem almost certain to capture Utah 4 and North Carolina 7 and to have some chance in New York 4; Democrats have the potential to mount serious challenges in New Jersey 3, Virginia 10 and Pennsylvania 6. The actuarial effect of these retirements seems to favor, slightly, an increase rather than decrease in the number of Republicans in the next House.

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