The political trends closing out 2013 have not been kind to Democrats, and their chances of retaking the House next year are slim. But the year ends with a table of opportunities set in the lower chamber, most recently Republican Rep. Frank Wolf’s announcement Tuesday that he won’t seek reelection in Virginia. Wolf’s retirement leaves a third battleground, suburban, Republican-held congressional district wide open in 2014, giving Democrats the chance to make a strong run at a trio of seats that otherwise would have been far out of reach.
Democrats have plenty of vulnerable House seats to defend in 2014, but all of them thus far are set to have incumbents defending them, save for the bright-red Utah district held by Rep. Jim Matheson, who also announced his retirement Tuesday. Meanwhile, two-term Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., decided not to run for reelection last month, and Rep. Bill Young died in October, triggering a special election in Florida’s Pinellas County.
All three districts are ancestral Republican territory but now split nearly 50-50 in national politics. Wolf’s seat, like Young’s, changed dramatically during his time in office — from a reliably Republican area to more evenly split territory over the course of 33 years. In this year’s Virginia governor’s race, Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli carried Wolf’s district in Washington’s suburbs by 1 percentage point over Democrat Terry McAuliffe, according to Bloomberg. That’s the same margin with which Mitt Romney won the district in the 2012 presidential election, while President Obama won a 51 percent to 48 percent victory there in 2008.
Obama’s 1-point loss in Virginia’s 10th District was actually the worst Democrats did in any of the three now open seats. Obama carried Young’s Florida district by 1 point and Runyan’s New Jersey seat by 4 points in 2012. Obama’s victory in 2008 helped sweep a Democrat, John Adler, into the New Jersey seat for the first time in decades.
But all three Republicans, especially the veteran appropriators Wolf and Young, completely resisted the political currents in their districts in 2012, thanks to built-up years of moderate reputations and force of personality. Runyan’s 9-point victory was the smallest of the trio in 2012.
That made Runyan and Young particularly rare commodities in this Congress, as two of just 17 House Republicans from districts that Obama carried in last year’s election. Wolf’s district falls just outside that category; Romney’s margin was barely more than 4,000 votes. Whomever Republicans nominate to run in those three open seats, they won’t have the advantage of time-tested familiarity that Wolf and his colleagues would have had in reelection runs.
Meanwhile, national Democrats have candidates ready to go in all three districts. Just last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee touted Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust’s decision to run for Wolf’s seat, and the DCCC has already lined up behind women running for the other two open seats: county officeholder Aimee Belgard in New Jersey and Alex Sink, a former gubernatorial nominee, in March’s Florida special election.
House Democrats are guaranteed nothing in 2014, and the current political climate foretells more pain than gain. Over the last two months, they have surrendered their lead in generic-ballot polls. But Wolf’s retirement opens up a third opportunity for Democrats to play offense in a district where there was no opportunity before.