Three House members surprisingly announced retirements yesterday, potentially altering the outlook for 2014. Veteran congressmen Jim Matheson (D-UT-4), Frank Wolf (R-VA-10) and Tom Latham (R-IA-3) each will not seek re-election, representing an aggregate total of 68 years of exiting congressional seniority.
At first glance, it appears the eventual Republican nominee will be the prohibitive favorite to convert the solidly conservative 4th Congressional District of Utah, while both the Virginia and Iowa marginal seats will begin in the “toss-up” category. See our analysis below. Along with the vacant FL-13 seat, three more Republican seats will now become competitive and susceptible to Democrat conversion. The party needs 17 seats to claim the House majority and converting these three winnable districts would reduce their net minimum number to just 15.
Rep. Jim Matheson originally was elected to the Salt Lake City-based 2nd District back in 2000. As the only Democrat in the Utah federal delegation, Rep. Matheson has carefully protected his Utah constituency and still kept loyal to his party leaders in Washington. He typically held one of the top two or three Republican seats in the entire country represented by a Democratic congressman.
In the 2011 redistricting plan, Matheson’s previous constituency was split among the state’s four newly drawn seats. Utah gained one district in reapportionment. Matheson somewhat surprisingly decided to seek election in the new 4th District, despite it containing only 33 percent of his previous constituency and giving 67 percent of its votes to Republican Mitt Romney in the presidential race. He faced Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love (R) in the general election, and appeared to be the underdog despite his incumbency. In a surprise to most observers, and some reports said even himself, Rep. Matheson prevailed again with a scant 49-48 percent victory margin. Love previously announced her plans to seek a re-match in 2014.
Without Matheson as the party standard bearer, Democrats will have a very difficult time even waging a competitive battle here. Obviously Mayor Love has the inside track to the Republican nomination and will be difficult to beat for a candidate with considerably fewer advantages than the veteran incumbent. This race likely will be a Republican conversion.
The longest-serving of yesterday’s retiring trio is 17-term veteran Frank Wolf (R) of northern Virginia. Elected in the Reagan landslide of 1980, Wolf defeated incumbent Joseph Fisher (D) 51-49 percent, after scoring 47 percent against him in 1978. He would go onto win 16 more times, falling below 57 percent just one time in his career, and that was a 53 percent victory in his first re-election (1982).
As a result, Wolf has held a seat in an increasingly Democratic-trending region for more than three decades. A key Appropriations Committee member, the 74-year-old congressman currently chairs Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies sub-committee.
The 2011 redistricting process helped make the Wolf seat more Republican, and now geographically stretches from the McLean/Great Falls area all the way to the West Virginia border. Still, the presidential race broke down into almost a tie, as Mitt Romney carried the seat by just a one-point, 50-49 percent spread.
Look for a highly competitive race to succeed Rep. Wolf, with “toss-up” status potential; Democrats in particular have a large number of incumbent state legislators and local officials who will be considering entering the race. Previously announced is Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust, but it remains to be seen if others step up to challenge him for the Democratic nomination. On the Republican side, the three most notable names appearing as the product of early congressional candidate speculation are state Sen. Richard Black and delegates Barbara Comstock and Tim Hugo.
Rep. Latham, originally elected in 1994, has seen his district become ever more competitive in recent years. Particularly in 2012 when he was paired with veteran Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-IA-3) in the four-seat post-redistricting plan, Latham had to campaign hard to score a sound 52-44 percent win in a place where he represented only 17 percent of the new constituency, versus the 56 percent who had previously voted for Boswell. President Obama carried the new district with a 51-47 percent margin. Therefore, just looking at these basic numbers gives us a perspective that the Democrats have a significant conversion opportunity in central Iowa.
Months before Latham decided not to seek re-election, Democratic former state Sen. Staci Appel announced her candidacy. Now that the seat is open, it is likely other Democrats will jump into the race for the Des Moines-anchored seat. Republicans have a lot of options here, despite this area trending mostly away from them. Secretary of State Matt Schultz, West Des Moines Mayor Steve Gaer, and former state Republican Party chairman Matt Strawn are listed as possible GOP contenders. Looking at the quality of candidates from both parties coupled with the district’s marginal nature means this new open seat contest will become one of the top national House campaigns in the 2014 election cycle.
AL-1 Special Election
As expected, former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Bradley Byrne (R) easily won the special election to replace resigned Rep. Jo Bonner (R), scoring a 2:1 victory over Democrat Burton LeFlore in the strongly Republican southwestern Alabama congressional district.
Byrne will take the oath of office in early January and serve the balance of the current term. He should have little trouble securing a full term next year.
The election now means that just one seat, the late Rep. Bill Young’s (R) Tampa Bay, Florida congressional district, is the House’s only vacancy. The special election cycle includes a Jan. 14 special primary with a March 11 general vote.