House: The New Outlook

Since Dec. 17, seven US House members in rapid-fire succession – three Republicans and four Democrats – announced their retirements or resigned from Congress in order to accept an Obama administration appointment. The cumulative effect of the moves changes the projections for Election 2014.

Right now, the House stands at 232 Republicans and 201 Democrats with two vacancies – one from each party. The newest mid-term resignation, from Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC-12) who is leaving his safely Democratic congressional seat for purposes of accepting an appointment to join President Obama’s administration as director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, will remain unoccupied until the November general election. The previous vacancy, that of the late Rep. Bill Young (R-FL-13), will be filled in a March 11 special election. The Florida seat appears headed toward consensus Democratic candidate Alex Sink, the former state chief financial officer and defeated 2010 gubernatorial nominee. Should Sink follow through and win the seat as projected, the Democrats’ magic number of Republican conversion seats needed to assume House control will fall to 15.

With the recent three Republican retirements, in addition to Rep. Jon Runyan (R-NJ-3) who announced his decision in early November not to seek a third term, a total of five new GOP seats, including the open FL-13, are now in the highly competitive category. Does this mean the Democrats are in a much improved position to take back the House?

Possibly, but probably not. Looking at the entire picture of retirements, certainly the recent adding of representatives Tom Latham (R-IA-3), Frank Wolf (R-VA-10) and Jim Gerlach’s (R-PA-6) seats to the open category give Democrats legitimate chances of winning each contest. Should they be successful in all five situations (including the Young and Runyan seats), their magic number would reduce by one-third and narrow the conversion number needed to attain majority status to 10.

But, such is not the entire picture. Of the four recent Democratic retirements, two are almost assuredly headed toward the Republican column and one more could be on the cusp of becoming competitive. Representatives Jim Matheson (D-UT-4) and Mike McIntyre (D-NC-7) voluntarily ending their congressional careers virtually hands each of those seats to the Republicans. There simply will not be a strong enough Utah or North Carolina Democrat in either of those particular regions to neutralize Republican advantages in each place. Additionally, though newly retiring Long Island Rep. Carolyn McCarthy’s (D-NY-4) district is decidedly Democratic, the region has been known to turn in past wave elections, and has the potential of doing so again.

Additionally, while an eventual Democrat nominee will certainly be competitive in the Runyan, Latham, Wolf, and Gerlach districts in no case will that individual even begin the campaign as the clear leader. Therefore, the year would have to trend heavily Democratic to see the party sweep all of these aforementioned campaigns. Today, though the political winds change very quickly as we have already witnessed, demonstrated in monitoring reaction to the government shutdown as compared to healthcare implementation, more current evidence exists to suggest that a national Republican upswing is more likely than a Democratic one.

Turning back to our analysis of the seven newly opened seats, it is just as likely that the Republicans actually net a gain from this group of districts than do the Democrats. Therefore, instead of the Democratic number being reduced to 10 as a result of the retirement cavalcade over the past three weeks, the real swing could yield a Republican gain of one just as easily.

The current total House open seat count is 27, featuring 18 Republican seats and nine Democratic after accounting for vacancies filled throughout the year in special elections. While it is conceivable that the Democrats could be competitive to the degree of winning in 32 Republican-held seats, twice the number they need to claim the majority, Republicans have an equal chance of upending Democratic incumbents or open seat nominees in 24 districts. This means that the highest majority number the Republicans could reasonably hope to attain in next year’s 114th Congress is 256 seats, as compared to 233 for the Democrats.

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