Though less than three weeks have elapsed in the 2014 election year, an interesting and potentially pivotal narrative in the election cycle has already emerged. In that nineteen-day span, over a half dozen members of the U.S. House of Representatives, from both parties, have already announced that they would not be running for re-election later this year.
There are, at present, more than thirty seats in the House that are guaranteed to have new occupants by this time next year. In an era where incumbents, even in wave years, are largely insulated from defeat, these so-called "open seats" take on enormous significance in the battle over the balance of power in the Congress.
But, as it happens, just because there may be a large and growing number of open seats in the House (one presumes that more will come as filing deadlines across the nation draw near—only two states have already had their filing deadlines), it does not mean that all of those seats should be considered on equal footing. What follows is an examination of the variety of ways in which electoral observers can look at the growing list of non-incumbent contests gracing the 2014 electoral schedule.
Please read below the fold for more.
CATEGORY #1: THE GENUINE TOSSUP
Our own Daily Kos Elections House ratings list only a pair of open-seat contests in this category, but other publications have even more contests in "coin flip" territory. Oftentimes, incumbents are able to create a firewall in seats that would be far more attainable without that incumbent in the mix. One of our designees as a "tossup" fits that description to a T.
Iowa's 3rd district is swingy territory, with pockets of pretty deep blue offset, at least in part, by Republican-leaning rural areas. The net result is a district that President Obama carried by a 51-47 margin in 2012, mirroring almost perfectly the national margins. Despite the lack of a clear partisan tilt, veteran Rep. Tom Latham might've been well suited to win there, if not comfortably, for the foreseeable future. But his retirement after two decades in office wiped the slate clean, and Democrats have to be considered at least an even money bet to win the seat.
The converse of Iowa's 3rd district could well be the New York 21st. Vacated earlier in the week by third-term Democratic Rep. Bill Owens, the 21st also more or less mirrored national numbers (Obama 52-46), and has a history of being willing to vote for candidates from both parties. Republicans were still gunning for it with Owens in the mix, but not having to battle an incumbent who has shown the ability to stare down legitimate challenges not once but twice has to be a development which greatly pleases the NRCC.
While we only have these two races as true tossups, DKE also has a total of eight other open seats that we categorize as "leaning" to either party. In these cases, it wouldn't take a big partisan tailwind in the national electoral mood to send one, or all, of those races in the direction of either the Democrats or the Republicans.
While these districts have many differences (regional, urban v. rural, etc), they all have one or both of the following critical characteristics: they are all districts where (at the presidential level, at least) things are reasonably competitive, or they are all districts where both parties have recruited credible candidates into the race. In most cases, they have both.
These are the districts, in short, where you can expect both parties to go "all in" in an effort to alternately preserve a tenuous hold on a district, or seize territory long conceded to the other side. A lot of cash is going to be headed to these half-dozen or so locales between now and November.
CATEGORY #2: WORTH A LOOK, BUT MAYBE JUST ONE LOOK
Daily Kos Elections currently has a quartet of districts described as "likely" to fall to the incumbent party, even as open seats. Democrats are defending one of those seats (Carolyn McCarthy's NY-04), while the Republicans are defending three of those seats (Tom Cotton's AR-04, Buck McKeon's CA-25, and Steve Daines' MT-AL).
If any of these four districts were to flip come November, it would be genuinely surprising. Not "Blake Farenthold seizing TX-27 in 2010" surprising, but worthy of a "wow," nevertheless. But, as in some of those tossup or lean races, either the district demographics might be slowly easing the territory into competitiveness (see: CA-25, which Obama came close to carrying in 2012) or the underdog party is at least putting credible candidates into the mix.
Still, all of these will be uphill slogs. On paper, CA-25 looks like the best of the bunch here, but even it has some caveats. Virtually all of the elected bench in the district is Republican (though the region did elect its first Democrat to the state legislature in 2012). The Democrats are countering, in all probability, with Lee Rogers, a podiatrist who performed very credibly in 2012, when he held McKeon to 55 percent of the vote. But Rogers might've actually had a better draw with the incumbent, who had some political baggage and campaign skills that had grown far beyond rusty. Which actually brings us to our next category.
CATEGORY #3: ADDITION BY SUBTRACTION
In an odd way, one wonders if there were many tears shed at the NRCC this week when McKeon surprised absolutely nobody by finally proclaiming that he was standing down. After all, his retirement was so expected that two heavyweight Republicans, former state legislator Tony Strickland (who had run in the swing 26th district, and lost, in 2012) and state senator Steve Knight, had already announced bids for the 25th district.
What's more, the GOP might be better off without McKeon in the mix. McKeon, in his mid-70s, had never been seriously challenged in this district, which has historically occupied much of the Santa Clarita and Antelope Valleys north of Los Angeles. The territory was rock-ribbed Republican turf when McKeon got elected there over twenty years ago. But an influx of diversity into the region (in fast-growing Palmdale and Lancaster, in particular) has created a district that Mitt Romney needed every Anglo Santa Clarita Valley vote to carry (50-48). But McKeon still ran, and voted, like his district was the uber-white, uber-Republican oasis to which he was elected in 1992. Rogers, an energetic Democrat who may well have been the first Democrat in the district to actually spend a six-figure sum to win, held him to a single-digit margin on Election Day 2012, and immediately launched for a rematch.
Rogers is fundraising at a better clip than 2012, and has to be considered a serious candidate for the Democrats. But he would've been far better suited to run against a rusty McKeon than either of the much more battle-tested Republicans that will likely await him come November.
But the textbook example of this "addition by subtraction" maxim is ... without question ... one Michele Bachmann. Bachmann, a perennially embattled Republican by dint of her own batshittedness, has routinely limped home with low single-digit wins in the most reliably Republican district in her state. We tend to forget, because of Bachmann's routinely close victories, that the Minnesota 6th is a district where Barack Obama got beat by 15 percentage points in 2012, and even lost by a dozen points in 2008, when he was winning nationally in a landslide. With Bachmann finally heading to the sidelines, her replacement will, in all probability, be decided in the GOP primary. It's unlikely the Democrats will even contest the seat, absent an equally Bachmann-esque Republican emerging from said primary (and ... well ... yup. That could happen).
CATEGORY #4: FUHGEDDABOUTIT
Finally, there are the open seats which will probably not merit mention past September. Why September? Because, with the lone exception of Louisiana (and their quirky brand of electoral politics), everyone else will have dispatched with their primary elections in September.
And, yes, roughly half of the open seats on the docket in this 2014 election cycle will be decided in the primary election season, which begins in March in Texas and rolls forward until September 9th, when a handful of New England states close the festivities.
Two of the seats which became open this week exemplify this type of open seat. Both the California 11th (long held by George Miller in the East Bay) and the NoVa-centric Virginia 8th (held by Jim Moran) are districts that Barack Obama carried by a better than 2-to-1 margin in 2012. It is doubtful the Republicans will even bother to put up a fight here, and the numbers would indicate that to do so would be a fool's errand.
What is the most lopsided seat open this cycle? For trivia buffs, that would appear to be the North Carolina 12th, held by Mel Watt, who resigned to become the head of the FHFA late last year. In a bit of a controversial decision, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory elected to hold the special election in concert with the regular election calendar, meaning the seat will remain vacant throughout the year. It is a 78-21 Obama seat, meaning that the general election will almost certainly be a formality.
The sad news, for Democrats, at least, is that the "fuhgeddaboutit" seats include a pair of seats that, in all probability, mean that the GOP will start Election Night 2014 with a +2 already in their column. It is not impossible, of course, but it seems incredibly unlikely that the Democrats will be able to defend the seats being vacated by a pair of their incumbents: Mike McIntyre (NC-07) and Jim Matheson (UT-04). Both went for Mitt Romney easily (the North Carolina seat a bit less so). Now, personally, I dissent from many of my colleagues in that I think it is at least possible for the Democrats to defend a seat like the North Carolina 7th. But the Utah 4th is almost certainly a goner, and both seats were drawn in the 2010 redistricting cycle to shed away enough Democrats to endanger both incumbents (both of whom had brutally tough showdowns in 2012), and render the districts nearly impossible to hold for the Democrats post-McIntyre and post-Matheson.